Dionne Gravesande looks at the reasons for the Christmas season, and concludes that it provides us with great opportunities to give and to share and, in so doing, we reflect the heart of our heavenly Father
The Christmas season is upon us again. The stores are packed with shoppers trying to find the perfect gift; Christmas trees are decorated with every imaginable colour, and Christmas music is heard everywhere you go. I have the feeling of “Here we go again”. The quest to accumulate can become highly competitive, and sometimes pits brother against brother, friend against friend, and employer against employee. It doesn’t have to be that way, however; one custom that is shared across religious and cultural traditions from Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa is the act of giving to others.
For instance, we often hear the phrase that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) quoted a lot during this time of year. Although Christmas gifts have often become associated with shopping frustrations, there is considerable evidence in support of this frequently cited biblical passage. For me, this is somewhat refreshing to read, since society’s default setting seems to suggest we are living in a selfish and uncaring society. It seems, in this case, the science supports the benefits of giving.
For example, research by a social psychologist, writing in the Journal Science, shows that people’s sense of happiness is greater when they spend relatively more on others than on themselves. In one survey of over 600 people, the study found that spending money on others predicted greater happiness, whereas spending money on oneself did not, and this pattern was found across all income levels. In other words, even those with little money reported greater happiness when their proportion of spending on others, relative to the self, was greater. When the dominant culture suggests people are becoming more self-occupied, this study sends a counter-cultural message. That’s an important thought to hold when reflecting on the reason for the season, because it proves that human behaviour has natural tendencies to give to others, and this is evident, particularly in times of great need both at home and overseas.
So, how do we as Christians understand and reflect upon the act of giving (and I’m not necessarily talking about money)? And, alongside that, how do we see those who are in receipt of the giver’s gifts? Do we have a lens to unpack thinking, or are we in danger of falling into the trap of labelling people who present as being in need of our giving? Interestingly, I asked a couple of friends their thoughts. One said, ”The poor will always be with you,” so it’s can act of charity, and the other said, “Givers often give with a motive,” meaning they expect something in return. These are very different starting places, but might represent how we think about such things.
Perhaps it is right to say that ‘giving and receiving’ are both part of the grace of human life and is dignified. It is not the case that we shall ever, or should ever, reach a time in which no giving and no receiving are ever necessary. We are actually made to be dependent and interdependent on one another, and mutual giving and receiving are part of our being as persons in relation to one another.
Human dignity is not about becoming autonomous individuals at all, but about growing in appreciation of our inter-relatedness. Husband and wife, best friends or sisters and brothers. Giving and receiving are thus part of flourishing human life and should be celebrated. Indignity and sin happen when some are seen only as recipients (who must be grateful), and some are praised as ‘givers’, but this does not mean that giving and receiving are anything other than good things, which characterise redeemed human life.
Christmas is an exciting time for many families, but not all. For those with loved ones or friends that they are able to share Christmas with, it is a happy time. It offers an opportunity to get together and enjoy each other’s company. But Christmas also alerts us to the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, and many organisations and individuals make special efforts to bring the Christmas joy to them. In so doing, we symbolise the essence of the Christian understanding of Christmas as reflected in the Gospel of St John. Christ’s birth represents a supreme act of giving to humanity; the means to finding the true meaning of life, and the path to everlasting happiness. It is important that we note that God`s giving of His Son sprung out of love, a love that is selfless, all-embracing and unconditional.
Christmas affords us the opportunity to slow down, take stock, reflect on the reason for the season, and to make new attempts to be Christ’s disciples. The great Winston Churchill once scribed, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Though there is nothing wrong with sharing and giving to those we love, the opportunity to give to others outside our inner circle provides us with a blessing greater than anything we will feel or receive from any gift under the tree. So, this Christmas, if you can give more than you receive, I’d be interested to hear how you got on!
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