Some people say they prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because there is family togetherness, but no obligation to buy and exchange gifts. Shopping can be stressful, and often we go overboard chasing materialistic ends. Sadly, the tradition of gift giving has been commercialized, and we often forget the meaning behind the tradition.

The first gift givers in the original Christmas story were the Magi. The Bible lists gold, frankincense, and myrrh among the presents that they brought to honor Christ. These were not insignificant gifts, even for kings, and it was no easy journey following a star without NASA-era equipment.

A couple of thousand years later, the writer William Sydney Porter (a.k.a. O. Henry) penned a short story called “The Gift of the Magi.” O. Henry told the tale of a young couple who exchange their most valuable possessions for gifts that become useless to the recipient: She sells her hair to buy him a fob for his watch, and he sells his watch to buy combs to adorn her hair.

But is this classic story a tragic one? Not at all. The actions of the protagonists illustrate their sacrificial love for each other. And that’s what the spirit of gift giving can do today, when we truly invest time and energy in each other. It’s not the gift that matters, but the generous spirit that matters.

This is not an argument for bigger, more expensive gifts. In fact, it’s not an argument for physical gifts at all. Many a gift giver is motivated by selfishness: “Won’t I be the favorite daughter if I get Dad this!” or “Everyone will love me if I buy them the perfect thing!” Real generosity means giving of ourselves, even when gratitude — or that warm, fuzzy feeling of self-satisfaction — isn’t the payoff.

Are we generous enough to smile at the gate agent who makes us check our bag? Are we generous enough to anonymously shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk? Are we generous enough to forgo a convenience for the sake of someone else, even if that person is undeserving, ungrateful, or downright unpleasant?

Are we generous enough to be patient with our family members? To answer a harsh tone with a gentle one? Will we haggle with our roommates about who pays for what for the Christmas party, or will we deal generously with each other, in the spirit of the season?

A gift can be a forgotten debt, a forgiven trespass. A gift can be a thoughtful note, or a word fitly spoken. Anything we do, say, or give that brings honor to another person is a gift. It’s an investment, really, of our mental energy when we stop to think, “What kind of gift or action would honor this person?” This exercise turns our focus away from ourselves — a blessing and a relief from our self-centered culture.

For the young Christ child, the most fitting gifts from those visiting kings may have been exquisite riches from a foreign land. But what did Mary and Joseph do with that gold anyway? A college fund for Jesus? We don’t hear riches mentioned in Jesus’s life again (although the gold held significant symbolic value).

In following this tradition, we shouldn’t feel obligated to imitate the opulence of these gifts, but the sacrificial spirit behind them. After all, we do hear myrrh mentioned again in the account of Jesus . . . in the ultimate story of self-sacrifice and love, when Jesus is being entombed. Christmas is the beginning of that story, and the reason we celebrate. That is why gift-giving is a joy, because we imitate not only the Magi, but the child before whom they bowed.           

— Hadley Heath is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.