Happiness shimmers within me lately. I say it every year: it does not matter what is happening in my life during the month of December. Regardless of life’s noise — this month fills me with genuine, authentic joy. It always has. I love everything about Christmas. The anticipation, the lights, the songs, the gifts, the cold weather, the hot chocolate, the movies. Every year, I find myself hanging out on our couch when the rest of the world is asleep, staring at the beautiful Christmas tree and the mantle with the stockings hung on it, relishing the silence.

Christmas is magical.

On repeat is the same set of Christmas songs I’ve heard all my life. The smell of homemade cinnamon rolls and mozzarella cheese, loaves of made from scratch bread in the oven and the smell of sugar cookies in the oven. Painting neighborhood villages, stringing lights on the porch, watching the flames in the fireplace dance are all once-a-year activities that make my heart quiet. Surprising those I care about with unexpected, personalized gifts makes my heart explode every season because I love watching as they soak in the idea someone thought of them.

Presents are part of the Christmas season, part of the excitement. But they are not everything. In fact, gifts are usually not the among the top ten things I think about and look forward to during the holiday season. Except this year. This year there have been so many miracles and so many gifts. More than I can name. Ones that have humbled and overwhelmed me. Meaningful gifts that you can’t wrap because they are too precious, and too big. It’s easy to get caught up at Christmas in tangible gifts; how many does everyone have, does everyone have the perfect gifts under the tree, how am I going to get these gifts this year? Presents can be stressful. Sometimes even the idea of presents can be triggering for me; for a long time, they felt like bribes from my dad. There were a few times growing up that being a gift straight up left me hurting, although I didn’t really understand why then. Christmas, though–Christmas reminds me of the real meaning of gifts and why they are given.

Reading Luke, chapter 2 without the context of the rest of the Bible feels kind of like reading a nice story. It’s the whole of the Bible that really makes the beauty of this gift apparent. For thousands of years, God had cared for, protected, taught and grieved for humans. His “chosen ones” had blatantly rejected him — not just once, but repeatedly. After turning away from Him, they’d call out when in need, and He’d remember them, and welcome them back under His wing. The Gospel is really a story of a family, of a father who truly, truly, unconditionally loved His children, and was willing to do anything it took to bring them home. Even if that meant the ultimate sacrifice. The birth of His son was a precious gift, a gift that He didn’t have to offer, one that would cause Him to suffer horribly even though He hadn’t done anything wrong, so that He could welcome His other children home. It’s knowing the history of the world, God’s history with His chosen people, that makes the birth of Jesus all the more powerful and precious.

Each gift I’ve received this year has been magnified. Each gift I’ve received this year, though intangible, has burst my heart open. Each has taught me invaluable lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Each has been meaningful and impactful and each has reminded me of how blessed I am, and how unworthy. Gifts of confidence. Gifts of friendship. Gifts of healing. Gifts of compassion. Gifts of prosperity. Each reminds me that gifts are not bribes. True gifts do not beget obligation; accepting a gift given in sincerity, without ulterior motives, does not mean also accepting a debt. True gifts are born, rather, from a stirring in the giver’s heart, a desire to brighten the receiver’s day. True gifts bring joy to both people–the giver and the receiver–because it warms a day, interrupts self-doubt, pain, confusion, anger or boredom with a ray of light. Gifts, then, real gifts, regardless of what they hold inside, are packages of hope delivered. Because, when I am hurting, I get through pain by remembering the small acts of kindness, the gifts of hope, others have given me. They remind me that kindness is real and that it is stronger than evil.

For me, the biggest gifts of my life have been people and experiences and creativity from my daughters to open doors to special teachers to everything that this year has given me, I have been truly blessed with some of the most amazing gifts. There are 14 days until Christmas (!) and I want to spend time remembering the gifts that have most impacted my life, gifts that have changed who I am and have molded me into the person of today. Every day, I’ll write the story of a special gift I’ve received and how it impacted my life because the truth is: while evil may have shaped me, it did not consume me. All sorts of tragedies and crisis may have come my way but, in the end, the deposits others have made into my hope account have kept me moving forward, and kept me believing in faith and in tomorrow.

Under the Christmas tree sit brightly colored packages, presents I hope to be received with twinkling eyes and bright smiles. A year from now, though, they may not remember what gifts were opened on December 25. Three years from now, they almost certainly won’t. The real gift isn’t what is inside the boxes; the real gift is spending time listening to music and baking cookies, stringing lights and reading the Christmas story together. The real gift is in sitting by the fireplace, thanking God that we are together, that we have made it to the end of this unimaginable year. We give each other gifts because it’s one of many ways to show that we care about each other’s happiness; it’s one way to express thoughtfulness. Making someone smile — that’s the real gift. One year from now, three years from now, thirty years from now, I hope they look back and remember feeling loved as they opened gifts and laughed with those around them.

Love, when it is real, is about putting someone else first. It’s a selfless desire to see someone else happy, to see someone else’s dreams come true above and before your own. Real love is rare because it’s hard to care that much about another person; the risk of heartache or disappointment is high because people are broken. Eventually, they will hurt you. But people are worth the risk because people can believe in you, and that can inspire transformation. People are worth the risk because, at the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat, “hoping hope floats.” I have found that it does indeed—but

what makes hope float is a powerful combination of prayer mingled with small, meaningful gifts that are the resulting miracles and which illuminate darkened seasons. The most meaningful gifts, love and kindness, are also the most sparkly.