I have two explosive revelations for the price of one today. First, there is no Santa Claus; and second, it’s not commercialism that’s ruining Christmas as we know it.

The real “scroogifyer”  is misplaced expectation. On my way home from work today I was listening to Seth Godin’s audiobook, Linchpin. Seth reads it himself, so I think I’m getting to know the guy pretty well. Today he expounded what was basically a Christian view of gifts and grace, saying that a gift given with expectation for reciprocity isn’t a gift at all. It’s an exchange, which is exactly the same as paying for it.

Gift giving is fine, that’s not what’s ruining Christmas. The thing is, that’s not what we’re doing. If we both expect to get a gift from each other, then we aren’t giving gifts, we’re exchanging merchandise. If I don’t reciprocate, you’re disappointed, maybe even a little mad. Because I owe you a gift. After all, you gave me one. Or, what if you get me something expensive and I give you something cheaper. It rubs the wrong way, right? Why is that?

It’s kinda like me giving the Barnes and Noble cashier thirty one dollars for Christmas.

She smiles. “Oh, I almost forgot. I got you something too.”

“You did?”

“Yup. Look, it’s the book you wanted, the one you put on the counter.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

Oh, but she should have. It was an exchange. If I gave her money and she didn’t give me a book, that’s a breach of the social contract. If she gives me a book and I don’t give her money, that doesn’t work, either. Reciprocity is the backbone of the market. But not grace. Gifts cannot be expected. They can’t be exchanged. They can’t be reciprocated for the purpose of “evening things out.”

Aw, shoot. We got a lovely Christmas card in the mail today. Not good. You know why? It was from someone we didn’t send a card to!

Okay, what am I saying?

I’m saying bows and ribbons don’t somehow render our expected exchange more valuable. I’m saying it’s possible to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas merchandise for others without giving a single gift. That all we’re doing most times is acquiescing to the rules of social exchange in order to meet social norms and fulfill the expectations of the people around us. I’m saying Christmas expectations have nearly ruled out the possibility of giving real gifts during the season. I’m saying that maybe, the real gift isn’t the iPod, it’s that I was thinking of you, praying about how to bless and encourage you, wishing for your peace and joy and being thankful for my part in growing it in your soul.

Here’s another killer expectation, one that’s laid on me. Every single year, we pastors are expected to put a fresh spin on the advent season. I’m supposed to delve ever deeper into the biblical account so you don’t have to, shining a brighter light on God’s word than you could for yourself. I’m also supposed to keep things relevant while stirring up traditional warm fuzzies… and to all a good night. If I don’t, I get comments like, “Christmas just wasn’t very special this year.” Yes, someone actually said that to me before. Out loud. As if I’m responsible for what they get out of Christmas.

The expectation makes it pretty much impossible for me to preach as a gift to the people. It’s hard, with these expectations pressing, to prepare well. To simply share what God lays on my heart, even if it isn’t flashy, catchy, kitschy, warm, or fuzzy. To remember that the point isn’t, “have they heard it like this before?” but rather, “Are we living this out fully yet?” Sometimes I think I find it harder than the rest of my flock to just plain enjoy Christmas—no frills, no thrills. Just me an’ baby Jesus hanging out in the prickly bed of straw.

Somebody, please… stop the expectation coaster, I want to get off.

Or I’m gonna hurl.

I’d rather worship. Maybe I will.