Giving better Christmas gifts starts with looking at the story of Jesus' birth


How to Give Better Gifts (Hint: Skip the Lingerie)

Caleb Mathis

13 mins

The birthday boy once said, “It’s better to give than to receive.”

I think Jesus was onto something, but let’s be honest: not all giving is created equal. What makes a good gift? I’m on a mission to find out, cause I need all the help I can get. Between used CDs, mosquito nets, and Santa-inspired lingerie, I’m at least in the final four worst gift-givers in history.

Can you have trauma from giving bad gifts? Because the turning of the calendar from Halloween to November 1st immediately causes my blood pressure to spike. Turns out, I’m not alone. The NY Post recently reported that 60% of Americans are worried about being out-gifted this Christmas, and slightly more (62%) believe finding the right gift is the most stressful part of the holidays.

How to give gifts better

They say opposites attract, and when it comes to gift-giving, I couldn’t agree more. I’m (slowly and painfully) beginning to improve in the gift-giving category from observing my wife, who gives gifts so well she puts Oprah to shame. What I’ve learned about giving good gifts, I learned from her… and from some near-eastern astrologers. More about them both shortly.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts (which, by the way, make for a terrible Christmas present), let’s pull back a little. The Christmas season is so intimately tied to gift-giving that we usually don’t give a second thought as to where this tradition even began. We give gifts to friends and family simply because we’ve always given gifts to friends and family. Unfortunately, routine isn’t a great reason to keep doing anything. We need a deeper motivation than that. I think the original Christmas story might have it.


Whether Christmas, for you, is about Jesus, the reign of Queen Mariah, or an excuse to watch Home Alone again, there’s something for all of us to learn from those OG gift-givers, the ‘magi.’ Don’t worry; you don’t have to ascribe to any set of theological beliefs to learn to give gifts that don’t suck.

In the original Christmas story, the magi (sometimes called the wise men) show up out of the blue with three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Though we don’t know their names, these guys are the whole reason we associate Christmas with wrapping paper, bows, and boxes under the tree in the first place.

How to give gifts better

Looking at their example and my own gift-giving failures, I came to a realization: I’ve sucked at giving gifts for most of my life because I didn’t understand why we did it. For me, it was just tradition. Since then, I’ve come to understand that giving a gift is an opportunity to show the receiver that you love them, see them, and know them. It’s actually quite important.

All good gift-givers—the magi, my wife, and (in seven minutes) you—excel because they use three filters as they scroll Amazon, push a cart around Target, or brave the walls of the local mall.

Every great gift involves effort, intentionality, and empathy.


Most scholars believe the magi lived somewhere around modern-day Iran. If so, that means they traveled some 900+ miles, by foot and pack animal, to reach Bethlehem. Google tells me a camel can walk, on average, about 20 miles a day. If that was their steed of choice, we could deduce the magi invested, at the very least, 45 days of travel, one-way, to bring their presents to Jesus. Dang.

How to give gifts better

Then there’s me, who has traditionally reached for the easy button for gifts—like, as little effort as possible. Take, as a case study, my first wedding anniversary. Did I book a nice dinner and a luxury hotel? Did I bless my beautiful bride with a day at the spa? Did I plan a cozy weekend away at a cabin? No. Two hours before she got off work, I ran up to my local used bookstore, found a handful of second-hand CDs I thought she might like, and was then confused when the sparks that flew later that night weren’t the ones I was hoping for. I literally made her cry from my lack of effort. Ouch.

I’ve since learned what might seem obvious: the effort you put into giving a gift reflects how much you value the receiver. My used CDs didn’t hit the spot, not because their price tag was less than $10, but because it was apparent I hadn’t put any time, thought, or planning into the gift. What my wife “heard” through that sucky gift was that she wasn’t worth the time, thought, or planning either. Not what you want to communicate on your first wedding anniversary—or any day of the year.

While gifts are receiver-specific—meaning, what might make a great gift for you might not make a great gift for me—effort is not. Effort is the key for a gift to not be thrown out with the torn wrapping paper. I’ve found that effort almost always involves listening (so you know what feels like a gift to the person you’re trying to bless), planning ahead (because, contrary to popular belief, not everything is available with 2-day shipping on Prime), and presentation (once, I wrapped a gift in a used pizza box. Yes, that’s as embarrassing for me to write as it was for you to read).

In a world where loneliness is pandemic, showing someone else they are worth the effort will mean more than anything you can fit into a gift bag.


At first glance, the gifts our long-traveling magi friends gave Jesus seem out of left field: there’s no diaper bag, pacifier, or running stroller in the mix. But those gifts—gold (the shiny stuff), frankincense (great smelling incense), and myrrh (fragrant perfume with medicinal properties)—were actually deeply intentional. The gifts spoke to the identity of the receiver, reflecting who the gift-givers believed Him to be.

How to give gifts better

In those days, gold was most associated with nobility. Despite His humble birth, this gift recognized Jesus as a king. Frankincense, because of its cost, was primarily used by priests in worship at the temple (Exodus 30:34-38). Giving this to Jesus showed the magi recognized him as a priest, a connector between God and man. With indoor plumbing still millennia away, the ancient world Jesus was born into was pretty stinky. A perfume like myrrh was a great way of covering over that stench, and because it was so powerful, it was often used to prepare dead bodies for burial. This gift called out the future path to the cross and the resurrection that Jesus would face some 33 years later.

All in all, we have three gifts that call out three distinct identities of Jesus. That’s what a great gift does. It sees who the receiver is or wants to be and gives them a runway to takeoff.

One of my favorite gifts I’ve ever received from my wife is a Leatherman pocket knife. Somehow, despite managing to lose nearly everything that isn’t attached to my body, I’ve held onto this knife for two years, carrying it with me everywhere I go (except airplanes). Funny thing, a pocket knife wasn’t on my Christmas list. Yet, my wife (told you, great gift giver) knew that I like to be prepared, useful, and a little dangerous. A knife/multi-tool combo fits that identity perfectly. So well, in fact, that when I let a plumber who visited our house use it for something, and his partner accidentally packed it away, I called the company three times until they brought it back. That present meant something to me.

How to give gifts better

Then there’s me, Mr. Bad Example, who once gave everyone in my family mosquito nets for Christmas. Or, more precisely, I bought mosquito nets in their name through an aid organization and had them delivered to people in need in sub-Saharan Africa. It was not a terrible gift, except that international aid was my passion, not my family’s, making that gift more about my identity than theirs.

Gifts that can call out the receiver’s identity, or help them in pursuit of that identity are gifts that won’t be quickly forgotten. It takes time and intentionality to know someone on that level, but when it comes to gifts, it’s the difference between a dream and a dud.


It’s the magic word in our world today, and the magi nailed it. Joseph and Mary were very poor, and when you are in need, the thing you want most is for those needs to be met. Thirsty people need water, hungry people need food, and poor people need money. The gifts of the magi were very costly, and if you know anything about what happens immediately after Jesus’ birth, those gifts become all the more helpful.

The magi’s arrival in Israel sent shock waves, especially for a power-hungry king bent on keeping the throne. To do so, he ordered all male babies, two years and younger, to be slaughtered (Matthew 2:13-18). Joseph is warned in a dream to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt for safety. How can he afford to do this and bankroll their life in a foreign country until the threat passes? Many scholars believe he had to tap into the gold or sell the frankincense and myrrh in order to protect his family. If so, that was a wise choice, and it shows the brilliance of the magi’s gift. Not only did it show effort and intentionality, but it sang of empathy, too.

How to give gifts better

As a counterpoint, a few years back, I had the great idea to (among other things) gift my wife some lingerie for Christmas. Fellas, here’s some simple math: lingerie as a surprise, non-holiday gift, just because, might be a great idea. Lacy Santa Claus get-ups, as a Christmas gift, are not. (At least I had the foresight to have her open that present without the kids watching.)

Here’s the truth, and where empathy fell off the ship: while she might wear my gift, let’s be honest about who the lingerie was really for…me. She might have been the one to open the red and green box, but I was the actual recipient in that equation. There’s a reason that gift has gone down in our family lore as a great example of how NOT to give presents.

Put simply, a great gift is something that the receiver actually wants. Seems obvious, but… lingerie.

Empathy is built by spending time together, asking questions, and seeing the world from another’s viewpoint. If you need inspiration for a game-changing gift, do those things first, and you’ll be well on the road to a holiday-defining gift.


While we’re on the subject of learning to give better gifts, here’s some one-off holiday hacks I’ve learned to use, giving me an advantage in the gift-giving game:

  • MAKE A NOTE - Whenever my wife, kids, or other family members casually mention something they like (or might want), I jot it down in a note on my phone. As I do this all year, I generate a running list to work from when the holidays arrive.
  • TAKE PICTURES - Out shopping with your significant other? When they stop to look at a book, a sweater, or a new tool—snap a photo of it and save it to an album on your phone. Not only will you have a running list of great gift ideas, you’ll already know where to get them.
  • DO SOMETHING - Most of us already have all the “stuff” we need. If we’re starved for anything, it’s time and fun. So make it a gift. Give someone you love an experience—concert or sporting event tickets, an art museum membership, a woodworking class, piano lesson, or child care that you provide. Just be sure you build in flexibility, as scheduling something for someone else can get pretty hairy. But give them the opportunity and finances to make it happen, and you just might win Christmas.
  • GIFT CARDS - A hotly debated topic, so when it comes to gift cards, you have to do your research. My buddy, Adam, hates them because they’re impersonal. My wife, on the other hand, loves them because it feels like freedom. Get to know your recipient before pulling the trigger, and if you can, give a little more than they expect—it makes that plastic rectangle all the more exciting.
  • THRIFT IT - A good gift doesn’t have to break the bank or even be new. There are plenty of thrift stores with amazing, second-run gifts that are unique, quirky, and fun. Price doesn’t come into the equation when determining if a gift is good. If it meets the three filters, and you find it at Goodwill, run with it.

How to give gifts better

It took me almost forty years to realize it, but gifts are important precisely because they’re an extension of your relationship with the person standing on the other side of the bows and pretty paper. All relationships—marriage, friendships, even family ties—are built by empathy, intentionality, and effort.

Effort makes other people feel loved. Intentionality helps the receiver feel seen. Empathy means the person opening your gift will feel known.

Being loved, seen, and known are the three things we all want from relationships. Put heaping helpings of each into your gift-giving efforts, and we just might be calling you a magi by this time next Christmas.

And fellas, for the love, skip the lingerie.

Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.

Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

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