Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Gifts of Christmas

I have a deep respect for the heart of Christianity, but when Christmas rolls around each year I must admit that a part of me cringes. I grew up in a Christian household with presents under a decorated tree and family meals together. While a celebration of the birth of Jesus and reading from the Bible were not a central part of the holiday, the part about family togetherness was very important. The 1950's and 60's were not a time of great commercialism and my father's income was not much more than what we needed, so, with the exception of one Christmas morning, gifts were on the meager side as my memory serves me. We seemed to be happy with the little toys we received, as well as the new underwear. It was a simple time with simple pleasures that were appreciated. The love was always there, however, and that was the most important memory I have of Christmas past.

Fast-forward to raising my own family. The world became more commercial and the mother of my children was a very generous Mrs. Claus. Looking back at the wonderful memories that I video-taped, the sheer volume of gifts for our three children was almost embarrassing. We would go to Christmas mass and always enjoy meals together, but my children were never overdosed with religiosity, but merely taught to be generous in turn and compassionate to others. In that we succeeded.

I enjoy giving gifts and surprising others, and am always humbled by the kind giving of others, but... bah, humbug... I remain uncomfortable with the heavy commercial influence on a celebration of such spiritual significance. Ritual is essential, certainly, to hold communities and families together, but I feel we as a culture are being sold short by usurping the significance of such a time-honored ritual just to drive the economy. The season has become distorted, in turn leaving each of us, families, and the culture at large irreparably distorted.

I still object to having to yield to the obligatory gift-giving because 'tis the season. The commercial onslaught has co-opted Good Friday and Maundy Thursday into buying orgies of Black Friday and Cyber Monday that have become economic events by which we measure a weird sort of cultural health. But this sort of cultural health is not health at all, but an exercise in excess and trivia. Even good Christians, which I do not call myself, seem too often taken by the religious distortion of Christmas. Too many churches present Christmas as a children's holiday with re-enactments of the manger scene performed by little children, which does not begin to do justice to the historic message of God become human.

So what does the Scrooge in me really think??? There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in a tradition that has survived in some form or other for two thousand years. It is still profoundly humanizing and spiritually exacting at the core. And its irrationally-accepted distortions are no more crazy than any of the other economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.

In the spirit of gift-giving so alluring at this season, perhaps we can all make the world a better place with our generosity as we celebrate our spiritual connection with our family and community. There are many fine charitable organizations that house, feed, and clothe less-fortunate members of our communities. Since most of us buy what it is we need and want throughout the year anyway, without any delayed gratification as in days of old... instead of buying presents for the Christmas holiday for family and friends, take an equivalent amount of funds that you would have bought "stuff" with and spend it on coats, underwear, shirts, and jeans for needy folks. My wife and I have always given our time and effort to the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program, but I sometimes wonder if needy children really need spoiled with this once-a-year generous commercial overindulgence. Perhaps we each could sponsor a catered meal for a needy family to celebrate the holiday together at home. These are things we can do quietly, with humility, without public notice.

We need to remember that we still need each other. And that impulse, surely, is deep in the original heart even of the most secular things like Santa Claus and surrounding your home with lights: examining what we are to each other and experiencing that, sometimes when we do this, something transcendent happens.

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