At Christmas, I always start wondering how the agenda of others will end up under my tree. I call them missionary gifts.
My larger family is quite diverse. We’ve got conservatives, liberals, vegetarians, hunters, Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and more. You name a major dividing line and it can be at my Christmas feast. Sometimes, they all show up together.
(That goes a long way towards explaining why bacon never makes it onto my Christmas menu. Bacon is “wrong” for a huge variety of reasons. It’s meat. It’s from pigs. It’s high in salt. It’s high in fat. It’s fried. It’s not organic. It has nitrates. It causes cancer. It isn’t raw. It comes from a factory. Sigh.)
If you think planning a MENU for all those folks is hard, wait until we open presents!
(I love bacon. Sigh.)
At some point, it happens. Someone will bomb Christmas with a missionary gift.
(Maybe I can at least order some bacon wrapping paper. As a joke.)
I don’t know what else to call them. It’s when a gift CLEARLY represents the belief or agenda or ideology of the giver, even when the person opening the gift doesn’t think or feel the same way.
I’ve been given small statues of Buddha, a Chinese saint for fertility, and non-Christian prayer beads. I’ve learned to just smile and say “thank you for the thought.”
There have been gifts of soy products to a meat lover, Rush Limbaugh books to the hard core Al Franken lover, mass produced acrylic wear to the organic only hand spun enthusiast, and a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD to a country music fan.
I confess – I made the mistake of giving jewelry to a hard-core feminist who believed that jewelry symbolized a wife’s traditional slave relationship with her husband. Who knew?
Even with everyone on their best behavior, missionary gifts happen.
Between adults, it’s all good.
My kids don’t understand missionary gifts.
We pay to send our kids to a private Christian school.
We take them to church.
We haven’t exactly hidden our beliefs from family and friends. In addition to being openly Christian, we eat bacon, hunt for deer, and would like a smaller and less intrusive government. We’re raising our kids to have similar a similar world view with an expectation that they question and think for themselves.
When they get a missionary gift, it confuses them.
When they open up a gift they’re expecting it to be TOYS or ELECTRONICS. They don’t want a book on alternative religion or a statue of Buddha.
I’m not a mind reader, but I can give you a rundown on what they will think if they open something like that.
1. This isn’t a toy. This gift STINKS.
2. This is something religious.
3. Wait. That’s not Jesus.
4. Oh… it’s a false idol.
5. Ten commandments… no other gods… sin sin sin sin sin….
6. MOM! HELP! HELP!
They stand there with a fixed grin on their face (the one we practiced) and grunt out a “thank you” before looking at me to rescue them.
They’re torn between manners and beliefs.
Every year before Christmas, I practice appropriate present receiving behavior with them. They know what I expect. If asked, I would explain something about raising them to have good manners, showing appropriate thankfulness, and not acting like greedy little pigs.
When my kids open a missionary gift, I’ve got an equally fun internal monolog.
1. Well, that’s not from the list of suggested gifts you asked me for last month.
2. That’s… not… Jesus.
3. Oh please… don’t let my son start quoting the 10 commandments.
4. Please… just let him smile and say thank you.
5. Let’s get through this without the phrase “going to HELL” coming out of someone’s mouth.
6. HELP! ANYONE?
When I got through the annual “polite present opening drill” with my kids, it isn’t just to keep them from being greedy little pigs. I’m doing my best to prevent the H bomb. Every year, I imagine a likely scenario where the phrase “you’re going to HELL” is uttered around the Christmas tree. I drill my kids in manners to prevent the inadvertent H bomb.
(No, that’s not a cuss. I’m talking about the place with fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. That would be what my kids would be talking about if they dropped the H bomb at Christmas.)
After Christmas, it gets hard.
After all the presents are opened, the clean up begins.
My husband and I have to answer all the hard questions. We get to explain that Aunt Muriel doesn’t believe in Jesus and has chosen to worship a different god. We get to answer all the hard questions about how Aunt Muriel used to go to church every Sunday just like they do and how she was baptized and how now she sits on the floor criss-cross applesauce and staring at incense wands instead.
We try to help our kids understand what we can’t quite understand.
We talk about how much we love Aunt Muriel, and how it’s not our place to judge whether Aunt Muriel will go to heaven or not. We talk about why telling her about Jesus might not be helpful, and how sometimes we just have to let other people make stupid* choices. We talk about how love doesn’t stop just because of the stupid choices, and how God wants it to be that way.
And it’s hard.
Honestly, missionary gifts for my kids are ok.
But they give us all a chance to show the unconditional love and acceptance that is the HEART of Christmas.
- STUPID – Before you go off on my choice of words, hear me out. I’ve very patiently explained to my kids that God gives us free-will and expects us to think for ourselves. He gave us the ability to ask questions, explore the world, and draw logical conclusions. We are thinking rational beings not driven merely by emotion. We have self-control and not just instinct. Not only have I explained this to my kids, I expect them to act accordingly. In the context of my Aunt Muriel, my sons are likely to say “you mean God gave Aunt Muriel the free-will to chose to believe anything she wants and she is choosing NOT to believe in God? That’s just STUPID.” It’s as good of a description as I can come up with.