The rapidly approaching Christmas holiday is getting more difficult to observe in its original spirit. The old cliché “it’s better to give than receive” has more emphasis these days on the receiving, perhaps because of the constant pressure to define ourselves in terms of the things we own and keep rather than what we give away to others. At the rate we are going, it’s entirely possible that, just as another time was called the Age of Innocence, ours might well be called the Age of Stuff. The irony, of course, is – to cite another old expression –that “you can’t take it with you.” That obvious and inescapable fact, however, does not slow us down in our rush to accumulate, thinking apparently that, in our case, an exception will be made to the universal rule of mortality.
In recent years especially, the simple act of making a present to someone has become tainted by materialism and self-indulgence – what the poet Walt Whitman called “the mania of owning things.” The historical perspective shows that this has only recently been the case.
As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas was a time of solemn religious observance. It was not until the 19th century with the advent of the industrial revolution and the mass production and availability of material objects that the giving of presents started to become prominent. Christmas acquired a festive air, when, according to tradition, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Queen Victoria’s Consort, introduced the German custom of Christmas trees to England.
As Christmas approaches this year, the need for more stuff has already taken hold as we buy things we really don’t need as if some kind of contest were in place, one that we will always lose because more of anything can never be enough. Even the Christ child was given just three presents.
We need to be reminded that giving – and the good feeling that goes with it – is better than getting. Consider redistributing extra presents to those who could use them; if you buy your child a toy, have your son or daughter give a toy to another boy or girl who might enjoy it. Make a donation in someone’s name to a favorite charity instead of purchasing yet another gift. Help at a food bank, a library or a used clothing exchange, volunteer at the local animal shelter, visit a shut-in or a neighbor who might be spending the holiday alone, reach out to someone who might be less fortunate – the choices are almost endless, but the result is the same: by the giving of your time and your interest, you enrich others as well as yourself.
By so doing, we reach outside ourselves and our own narrow circle of life into the broader perspective of those in need. We do our part to make life a little better and happier, and the knowledge of that contribution can make receiving anything else almost unnecessary. You’ll be richer for the effort – and in a small but meaningful way, so will the world.