by Lee Hull Moses
In the span of about six weeks in the fall, my extended family has seven birthdays: two in my immediate family, two grandparents, two nieces, and a nephew. We’re geographically spread out, so every few days brings another trip to the post office to mail off a package, another birthday phone call.
We like to do up birthdays at our house. Last week, on my husband’s birthday, we had enchiladas for dinner, on the dining room table we usually only use for holidays. A homemade banner hung in the doorway. We sang, we lit candles, we ate birthday treats.
And there were presents.
Not many. Not extravagances, but indulgences all the same.
We’ve debated about presents on birthdays, especially for the kids. We’ve been invited to birthday parties for my son’s preschool friends to which we are encouraged to bring a donation for a local animal shelter or food pantry. Another family I know hosts a birthday book swap in lieu of presents. I like these ideas; I’m all in favor of teaching kids about sharing beyond themselves, and lord knows my kids don’t need another random toy.
But we’ve never discouraged presents on our kids birthdays. My son turns four next week, and we’re planning a party in the park – the first time he’s had a real party with any guests beyond our family. If the weather is nice, there will be plenty of playing, and cupcakes, and my daughter is angling for a piñata. I imagine the guests will bring gifts.
I’m okay with that. It’ll be a small party, and the only kids coming are actual friends he knows well and likes. We’ve never done the invite-the-whole-class party; we might handle presents differently if we did. The thing is that giving gifts is one of the ways we tell people we care about them. Gary Chapman names the giving and receiving of gifts as one of the five love languages used by people in relationships to communicate with one another.
It’s not the only way. And, of course, the size or the cost of the gift hardly matters. (I’m pretty sure my husband liked the birthday banner made by the kids better than the rather pricey bottle of Scotch I bought for him.) But still, we mark special occasions by giving something to someone we love.
I want my kids to be responsible stewards of their stuff, to not be greedy, to not accumulate too much. But I also want them to learn gratitude and delight, and the practice of celebrating life. I want them to receive graciously and to give generously themselves.
We give each other gifts because life itself is a gift, worthy of gratitude, honor, and delight.
Lee Hull Moses is the pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the co-author of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People.