My first Christmas as the father of two children was the absolute pinnacle of parental excitement. I had it in my mind that this was going to be a year of festive exuberance. There would be an explosion of joy and happiness and Christ-honoring cheer.


Boy was I wrong.


Having spent months planning all the special moments, special gifts, and special surprises for my kids I was rudely awakened by crying, whining and complaining about both what they got and what they didn’t get.


It was horrible.


As a result, my gift-giving spirit dwindled. I began to feel resentful that my gifts and efforts hadn’t been appreciated and I felt like my kids were totally to blame—whose brats are these?


That happens a lot, truth be told. We give, and then the recipients of our gifts do not respond in the ways we’d hoped. They’re often unappreciative, dismissive, or under-impressed.


In my case, Carmel and I began new traditions that helped our kids revalue the meaning behind gift-giving. We taught them to appreciate what they got (regardless of whether or not they liked it) and to be thankful for the fact that they got it. I’ll comment more on HOW we did that later, but for now let me also acknowledge that Carmel and I did some soul-searching also.


Specifically, we wanted to learn how to become better givers. We wanted to free others from our expectations that they would LOVE our gifts. We also wanted to free ourselves from the ABSOLUTE NEED for our gifts to be as appreciated as they were intended.


Here’s what we learned:

1. You’ve got to give in secret. No matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s almost impossible to purify your motives entirely. Especially when it comes to gift-giving. Most of us, most of the time, want the recipients of our gifts to show their appreciation. At our best, we want them to simply acknowledge they received something and liked it. At our worst, we want them to tell others what a great gift it was so people will talk about how magnanimous we are. Which is why we’ve got to learn to give in secret.


This, actually, is one of the great benefits of telling kids about Santa Claus. We know right from the start that he’s the one who’ll get all the credit for our hard work, effort, and care.


Giving in secret means there’s absolutely no way whatsoever you can be thanked or glorified or otherwise grandstand with your generosity. It’s just a gift, for the other person; that’s all. There’s nothing less ego-driven, nothing more altruistic, than giving in secret.


Of course, not all gifts have to be done in secret. An anniversary gift, for example, should probably not come from a secret admirer. But, especially with charity and the giving of alms, with must be careful not to sabotage our nobility with our ego.


2. You’ve got to redefine value. The real worth of a gift isn’t its financial cost, but its human cost. What did it cost the giver? Some money? Some thought? Some time? Some extra effort to get some out of the way item? Or extra effort to deliver that item in a special way?


My friend Mark makes all the Christmas gifts for his family. They have a $15 limit on family gifts and draw names so each person has to only buy for one other. Mark takes his $15 and spends it on materials. Then, when he gives the gift, the recipient knows this cost Mark something precious—his time, his energy, his creativity.


The gift demonstrates that Mark cares, and that is perhaps the most valuable gift of all.


Contrast Mark’s habit with my friend Chris. One year, for Christmas, Chris received a credit card from his father with the attached note: have fun shopping! While many of us would love such a gift, the truth is that it hurt Chris. He hadn’t seen his father in over a year and hadn’t spoken to him in months. That gift may have been pricey, but it was a lot less valuable than what Chris was hoping for. In fact, that gift cheapened the recipient.


3. You’ve got to learn how to receive. Perhaps the best gift anyone can give is the genuine appreciation of a gift another has given you. Think of your kids, for example. They make school projects for Father’s Day and bring them home proudly. Even though the projects are ugly and misspelled, if you can sincerely say thank you and enjoy the gift, your child will light up.


It’s no different with adults. We give by receiving well. Even though we want to be people who need no special recognition for our generosity, we also want to be people who are generous with our recognition. We want to make every little gesture of love and affection seem worthwhile, special, and full of adoration.


One final thought…


When I was in Africa many years ago I learned an important lesson about generosity. I was in a hut made of thatch and brick. I was the guest of an elderly woman with very little money, but she had invited me for lunch and prepared several dishes in order to bless me. But we didn’t eat alone. She invited everyone in her village to attend this feast. Nearly twenty people came to eat with us—some were my friends, all were hers—and she told me, clearly aware of how startled I was by the crowd, that “what we have, we share.”


It’s not how much you have that matters. It’s not even how much you give. It’s simply that you share whatever you have. You’re not required to give everything away. You cannot solve everyone else’s money problems. You can’t single-handedly undo generations of neglect or laziness or corruption or victimization.


But you can always share.


Even if you’re poor.

Even if you’re broke.

Even if you’re weak.

Even if you’re hungry.


Especially at Christmas.