Recent Comments

    Gift or Regift

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    How are you feeling this mid-December? Are the holidays a gift or a curse? Have you been naughty or nice? Are you feeling Ho Ho Ho or Bah Humbug? There are 15 holidays from different cultures that are celebrated between Halloween (the gateway drug to the rest of the holiday season and national gay holiday) and New Year’s. Many involve gifts, food, family, and nearly all involve drama.

    Well, like most, if I am honest, all of the above are true on one level or the other, depending on the day. We hear so much more about buying than giving. For most, when you are past about 12, we hear much more about giving than receiving. During other holidays throughout the year, we are either giver or receiver, such as Birthday, Father’s and Mother’s Days, and National Doughnut Day. At the winter holidays, though, we are both givers and receivers. The pressure is enormous.

    We are bombarded with “the gifts of the season,” “the reason for the season,” and “all I want for Christmas is … .” Just not more Mariah Carey.

    In writing my articles, and given my 35 years spent on the front pew of the First Baptist, I always feel it is my duty to share that part of my experience. Especially since many of my readers may fall into the “unchurched” category.  I take my research seriously, the Hermeneutics. That is the study of the general principles of biblical interpretation. That’s what I have done here. It seems our modern-day celebration and gift-giving all started with the much-romanticized journey of three wise men following a star to the manger, where they presented the baby Jesus with the very first Christmas gifts!

    We are not sure they were so wise, since it took them two years to find the baby who would be, by that point, in his terrible twos. But the gifts they brought were not onesies or baby rattles. Oh no. They brought some good stuff: gold. Yes, please. Frankincense and myrhh. Not your mother’s perfume. We’ll get back to the gifts in just a second. Here is the story.

    There were three wise men from the East: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Oops, wrong trio. Those were the guys thrown in the fiery furnace! The wise men were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They got a birth announcement for a baby being born hundreds of miles away. The announcement was delivered via a huge star. They did some checking and found out it was a very special baby. They had already missed the baby shower and the actual birth, but decided to go anyway. It took them a couple of months to gather everything they needed for the caravan. Rounding up camels and rapscallions to accompany them was not easy. Then there were long tearful goodbyes to the Mrs. Magi’s. One of their most important tasks was shopping for baby gifts. More on that in a minute.

    The trip was rough. No one can really pinpoint the actual trip specifics. Google maps is sketchy from Babylon to Bethlehem or, most likely, Jerusalem by the time they got there. Today that would be about 13 hours by car or 234 hours by foot. We’re not clear why it took two years. With no GPS, they obviously wandered a good bit. I can just imagine Caspar bringing up the rear of the caravan constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” Don’t trust my word on how rough it was. It is well-known. Even T.S. Elliot wrote about it in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” It’s quite descriptive, of course.

               Oh dear, that was a rough trip. Today it would most definitely not take two years and there is a KFC only a 4-minute walk from the Church of the Nativity. OK, back to the gifts.

    Just as we have idealized the journey, we have done the same to the 3 gifts they brought. We all agree on the gold. That’s good. But the other two have been described as perfume and incense. Needless to say, those were great ideas to cover the prevalent dung scent in the manger, but by the time they got to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, they were already living in a house, sans barnyard animals. So, what’s up with the frankincense and myrrh? In all transparency, some of my research came from “What is myrrh anyway” from the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. In that movie, however, the wise men got the wrong house.

    Turns out the gifts weren’t just a lovely scented Yankee candle and a few sticks of Nag Champa.

    In an article by Colin Schultz in the Smithsonian Magazine, these Magi may have been onto something with the gifts they chose. “More than just aromatic compounds, frankincense and myrrh have interesting medicinal properties. From tests on mice, chemists at the University of Florence have found that molecules in myrrh act on the brain’s opioid receptors, explaining its painkilling action. The key active ingredient in frankincense has a structure not dissimilar from some hormones like testosterone. Atop its analgesic action, myrrh also seems to have anti-cancer properties. Of the Magi’s three gifts, maybe gold was the least valuable of all?”

    You go, wise men! You win the Best Secret Santa prize.

    OK, enough with the hermeneutics. I have my own story! Or two. OK, three.

    One of my most vivid memories is of my paternal grandmother at the holidays. She was left a single mother of three in the midst of the depression in Fredericksburg, Texas. German was her first language as was everything else stereotypically German—work ethic being foremost. When her husband died, she set to work immediately to provide for her children and continued working throughout her life.

    Her three children were overachievers in their careers and in their personal lives, with eleven grandkids among them. My Oma never had much, but she bought gifts at the holidays for all three of her kids, their spouses, and the eleven grandkids. We knew her gifts would be small and inexpensive. But when we arrived for Christmas, the 11 gifts for the grandkids were wrapped and under the tree. Oma calculated the most expensive one and taped coins to the others to make up for the cost difference. Every grandchild received a gift that cost exactly the same amount when the coins were added in … no favoritism shown to any. My brother and I scoffed at this until we were old enough to understand her huge heart and that her desire was to demonstrate the equal depth of love she had for each of us. It was her beautiful way to let us know we had equal parts of her heart.

    When I became a divorced Dad with kids living in another city, I had them most Thanksgivings and they spent the Christmas holidays with their Mom. That made things a lot different. Many of you know what it’s like to mail your gifts. It takes a little more work, but it also leaves you completely free to do whatever you want on Christmas Eve. You’ve finished your shopping at least a week earlier. For years, my partner and I would go to the huge Northpark Mall in Dallas an hour or two before closing on Christmas Eve to watch the mad scramble for last-minute gifts. At that point, it didn’t really matter what they grabbed just to have something under the tree. The male gendered shoppers often stopped at the entrance to the stores and took whatever perfume the impatient sales associate was spraying. They knew that, at 8 pm, the stores would close and their only option would be the 7-Eleven on the corner. We would then retire to a cozy Italian restaurant for Bellinis and lasagna! It was a perfect Christmas Eve—except for the fact that I wasn’t with my kids.

    Fast forward to the time when I was deciding whether or not to apply/audition for the job of Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. It came to my attention that the chorus did three shows on Christmas Eve. What? I thought I had left that behind with the multiple candlelight services of a mega church. At least SFGMC didn’t do a midnight mass/show! My first thought was, “If I wanted to do multiple performances on Christmas Eve, I could have stayed in the church.” Of course, I very soon came to discover that the Christmas Eve shows are truly the most wonderful time of the year for the chorus. They are our gift to the community in every way. This year will be my last time conducting at the Castro. There will be tears. I just have to forego the lasagna tradition and trade the Bellini for an Irish Coffee at Twin Peaks after the shows.

    I do fear our gift giving has become a bit of a mess. We don’t really know our friends that well and many of us have moved away from family. Enter the internet. It’s just easier to purchase a Visa gift card and email it. We’ve even stopped handwriting holiday cards. Surely, we can do better.

    In a 2016 online survey, 15% of respondents were unhappy about their gifts and 10% could not remember what they had received. 25 percent of respondents said they had re-gifted their presents to someone else, 14% sold the items, 10% tried to return them to the store, and 5% returned the gift to the giver. Seniors were more likely to send their unwanted presents to charity, while those aged 25 to 34 “simply threw them away.” Gifts that are the least likely to be appreciated include items like perfumes and cosmetics, ornaments, and clothing. Those were the exact things the last-minute shoppers were grabbing at Northpark Mall in the panic purchasing.

    Over the past 12 weeks, the chorus members have been preparing gifts galore. The gifts of time and energy and talent. And the gift of their voices. And you’ve been receiving these gifts with such amazing enthusiasm and gratitude. These concerts wrap up my final holiday concerts of 35 years conducting LGBTQ+ choruses. I’ve seen it all at the holidays. And, in the final telling, there is no Bah Humbug to be found. Just a heart filled to the brim.

    One of my favorite songs of all time is “A Song for Christmas” by Frederick Silver. It wraps up my feelings perfectly. No, I can’t give you all a physical gift, but I can share a song. This will be the final song of 2021!

    With that, I wish you the happiest of holidays. Signing off until 2022.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on December 16, 2021