The ethics of regifting is always a hot discussion at Christmastime and the weeks that follow our various office parties and family exchanges. Apparently, there are those who insist that regifting is a tawdry practice, and there are those who have practiced it for years and see no harm. For those who might not be familiar with the concept, Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary offers a helpful definition: To regift is “to give an unwanted gift to someone else” or “to give as a gift something one previously received as a gift.” In any case, two out of three people say they have either regifted or are considering regifting. And while there are no doubt many successful regifters among us, there are also unfortunate stories to show for the less successful, which make the discussion entertaining. Imagine opening the very gift you had given your mother-in-law a year earlier.
The concept of regifting is similar to a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit. “Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom,” writes Tolkien. “Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.” Whether Hobbit or human, regifting is evidently nothing new.
Even so, when a colleague of mine referred to Christmas as the “season of regifting,” I was certain he had been the victim of too many unfortunate gift exchanges. Except he wasn’t talking about unwanted scarves or random gift-cards. He was talking about the mysterious gift that is resurrected each Christmas and presented again as if new. Year after year, we reopen the story of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi, and the star. “God is a regifter,” he said. The child is the gift.
The season of Advent leading through Christmas to the feast day of Epiphany is a journey the church sets before the world to meet the Christ child… again. Advent marks a new year for the Christian, setting off the imagination and promise of a new creation in God’s hands. Each year the same story is recalled and the same expectant hope is given time to grow. Each Christmas is an opportunity to unwrap the same gift given last year and the year before and the year before and the year before. Once more we have before us the choice to set it on a shelf like an unwanted present or to receive the child—the gift of the Father—as if new. Unlike the many mathoms that fill a Hobbit’s house with purposeless treasure, this gift is not useless, it is not sent out from the hands of one who let go lightly or half-heartedly.
In a Christmas episode of The Simpsons, the character who was playing one of the three wise men in a nativity scene admits to regifting the myrrh he’s brought for baby Jesus. “Because,” he pleads. “Nobody needs myrrh!” There is perhaps some truth to this. The uses of myrrh are few, and it is, by far, a strange and unlikely gift to receive. Myrrh is a rare and expensive spice, most notably used in embalming the dead. But this myrrh, as the magi knew and the prophecies foreshadowed, was something this child would use.
Making the long journey marked by a great star, the magi saw the child and “they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts.” They offered him gold, honoring the infant as a king. They offered him frankincense, worshipping the child as God. And they offered him myrrh, revering the little one as one who would die. These gifts were not given haphazardly, but with a startling sincerity for the incomprehensible gift before them.
In the mysterious gift of a vicariously human Son, crowned with gold at birth and thorns in death, God comes to us once again as a gift.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.