Does Christmas Giving Make Sense?
MOST Christmas spending is done because giving gifts at that time of year is the expected thing to do. If one doesn’t give, one has violated an entrenched custom. But economist James S. Henry, writing in The New Republic, criticizes such “forced giving” as joy-killing and wasteful.
“Mistargeted giving is one indication of this waste,” he explains. “According to New York department stores, each year about 15 percent of all retail dollar purchases at Christmas are returned. Allowing for the fact that many misdirected gifts are retained . . . , up to a third of purchases may be ill-suited to their recipients.”
Really, does it make sense to save all year to buy gifts that others may not need or want? And does it make sense to try to impress others with expensive gifts?
“One particularly noxious aspect of Christmas consumption is ‘conspicuous giving,’” claims Henry. “Luxury gifts,” he says, “are designed precisely for those who are least in need of any present at all (‘the person who has everything’). Most such high-priced gifts are given at Christmas; the fourth quarter, according to a sampling of New York department stores, provides more than half the year’s diamond, watch, and fur sales.”
However, even expensive gifts don’t often make the recipients happy, especially when they are given to paper over a troubled relationship. According to Canadian doctor Richard Allon, “if you can’t be nice to one another all year, you won’t make up for it by an expensive gift. You won’t expiate your own guilt, and you’ll probably give some to the other person.”
Sadly, millions of people in developing lands lack the most basic necessities of life, yet those in industrial nations often seem to lack only in appreciation of their abundance. Christmas gifts are received with indifference—“what should I do with it?”—or with annoyance—“I certainly didn’t want this”—or possibly even with anger—“the gift I gave cost at least twice as much!” No wonder a German child-protection group concluded that at Christmas too much is given and often too thoughtlessly.
Moreover, Christmas magnifies human inequities, causing tremendous pressures and unhappiness. Some do not have enough money to buy gifts, and in the United States, this apparently leads to more robberies during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. Economist Henry reported: “Police suspect that all this property crime is because criminals too are propelled by the need to fill their family stockings.”
Many will agree with columnist Tom Harpur, who wrote in the Toronto, Canada, Sunday Star: “Underneath all the forced merriment, I know Christmas is increasingly a time of deep unease, dissatisfaction, guilt and sheer exhaustion to millions in our society.”
‘But the troubles are worth it for the sake of the children,’ someone may argue. Yet, is Christmas giving really beneficial to children?
What It Does to Children
“Although this is supposed to be a ‘happy’ time of year,” observed school counselor Betty Poloway, “there are a lot of unhappy children.” Why? How could Christmas giving be harmful to children?
Susan James, mother of three young children, reported: “I watched my children tear apart their presents, one after the other. When the end came, they stood in this mess asking for more! They are not greedy children and yet all of the gifts, all of the buildup, so overwhelmed them that they became greedy.”
Karen Andersson, chief of pediatric psychology at a hospital in Connecticut, U.S.A., described the problem: “It’s too much to walk down Christmas morning and see all these goodies. They frantically open each and every toy and don’t have a chance to focus on any item. For the child who might be hyperactive or impulsive, or who’s easily overexcited even during the calmest of situations, Christmas can be devastating.”
“Gifts don’t bring the happiness they once did,” noted a German newspaper in an article about Christmas. One woman lamented: “It used to be that children were satisfied with getting a good book, a pair of gloves, or some other small item. But my grandchild now tells me: ‘Grandma, this year I want a computer!’”
Yes, Christmas giving cultivates greed and selfishness. “One has only to visit any [toy store] at this time of year,” economist Henry pointed out, “to see the impact of this season’s extraordinary pressures on child-parent relations: distraught mothers dragging tiny toy addicts kicking and screaming away from the latest high-priced, cheesy offerings.”
But there are even more serious problems associated with Christmas giving.
Christmas Gifts and Truth
Ask a young child where his gifts came from, and what will he most likely answer? According to a New York Times poll, 87 percent of American children between the ages of three and ten believe in Santa Claus. Many parents perpetuate this belief, asking: “What do you want Santa to bring you this year?” Yet, what are the consequences?
The experience of Cynthia Keeler, reported in New York’s Daily News, illustrates. “Mom,” asked her seven-year-old son, Britton, “is there really a Santa Claus?”
Cynthia was evasive, as many parents are when asked that question. “What do you think?” she asked.
Britton said that his friends told him that there isn’t one, but that he wasn’t sure. Then he started to cry. “I got to know, Mom,” he said between the tears.
“If he wouldn’t have cried, I probably wouldn’t have told him,” Cynthia said. “But it was a matter of life and death for him. He just needed to have the answer. I told him there wasn’t a real Santa.”
The Daily News reported: “Still crying, Britton Keeler confronted his mother with the accusation all parents fear when the jig is up and Santa Claus has been demasked: ‘Why did you lie about it?’”
The consequences of parental deception are often devastating, as Bruce Roscoe, professor of family studies at Central Michigan University, U.S.A., said: “The child finds out mom lied and all the other children were right.” As a result, Professor Roscoe explained, the child often questions other things his parents have told him.
Fred Koenig, professor of social psychology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A., emphasized: “When they do find out, it really hurts the credibility of parents.” He added: “It throws doubt onto a lot of things.” The child might think that “maybe the whole religion thing is just clap-trap.”
Surely, it does not make good sense to perpetuate a lie by telling children that some mythical character provides gifts for them. Yet, didn’t visitors bring gifts to the babe Jesus on his birthday? So wouldn’t he approve of giving gifts at Christmas today?
A Christian Practice?
The Bible does say that wise men, or astrologers, brought gifts to Jesus. However, Christmas giving is not patterned after their example because they did not exchange gifts with one another. More important, they did not give their gifts at Jesus’ birth but at a later time. Their actions were in harmony with the ancient custom of honoring rulers. Note that the Bible record says that when they arrived Jesus was no longer in a manger but was living in a house. That is why Herod, based on what they had told him, decreed that all boys two years of age and under be killed.—Matthew 2:1-18.
Also consider: Isn’t it strange that on the supposed birthday of Jesus, he himself receives nothing? He may not even be given the slightest consideration! Really, where did the custom of Christmas giving originate?
Writing in the Los Angeles Independent, Diane Bailey explained: “Exchanging gifts dates back to ancient Rome, when the people would trade simple token gifts during ceremonies of sun worship and the new year.”
Under the headline “Unwrapping Yule Traditions,” Anita Sama wrote in a Gannett News Service story: “Long before Christian observances, exchanging presents was part of the winter celebrations. The Romans gave each other branches from a holy grove of trees, then moved to more elaborate items symbolizing good wishes for the coming year—silver, gold and honeyed treats.”
The truth is, Christmas is a pagan celebration that was adopted by Christendom. December 25 is, not the birth date of Jesus Christ, but a date linked with ancient licentious pagan feasting that early Christians avoided.—See box, “What Is the Real Origin of Christmas?” on the following pages.
If Jesus Christ were on earth today, how would he feel about Christmas giving?
How Jesus Views Giving
Jesus certainly does not condemn giving. On the contrary, always being willing to give unselfishly of himself in the service of others, he taught his disciples: “Practice giving.” And showing that giving would result in the givers themselves being blessed, he added: “And people will give to you.”—Luke 6:38.
However, Jesus was not here referring to the exchanging of gifts. Rather, he was pointing out the universal truth that unselfish giving is generally reciprocated. This is especially true when the one giving has a proper motive and loves another “intensely from the heart.”—1 Peter 1:22.
Love does not demand payment for its services, so Jesus recommended: “When making gifts of mercy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, that your gifts of mercy may be in secret.” The giver properly does not call attention to himself or his gift, yet he will not go unrewarded. Jesus showed this when he added: “Your Father who is looking on in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:3, 4) Further, the giver must, as the Bible says, “do just as he has resolved in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”—2 Corinthians 9:7.
So the giving that pleases Christ is motivated by love, is practiced without expecting anything in return, and is not done grudgingly or under compulsion. How different such giving is from so much of the giving done at Christmas!
Giving that is a source of joy, therefore, is not dependent upon the calendar or upon customs. It also reveals nothing about the size of a giver’s pocketbook, only something about the size of his heart. Indeed, Christmas has misled millions into giving the wrong things, often for the wrong reasons. Why not, then, try something better than Christmas giving? Try the kind of giving that brings rich blessings and real joy, which is the subject of the next article.
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What Is the Real Origin of Christmas?
INFORMED people realize that December 25 is not the day Jesus Christ was born. The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “The date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Gospels indicate neither the day nor the month.”
Further, it is well documented that Christmas and its customs were adopted from non-Christian sources. U.S. Catholic, in fact, said: “It is impossible to separate Christmas from its pagan origins.”
The Encyclopedia Americana explained: “Most of the customs now associated with Christmas were not originally Christmas customs but rather were pre-Christian and non-Christian customs taken up by the Christian church. Saturnalia, a Roman feast celebrated in mid-December, provided the model for many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. From this celebration, for example, were derived the elaborate feasting, the giving of gifts, and the burning of candles.”
Regarding the custom of gift giving, the journal History Today noted: “The giving of presents at the midwinter feast almost certainly began as a magical more than as merely a social custom. Saturnalia presents included wax dolls, given to children. A charming custom, no doubt, by times of record, but with a macabre past: even contemporaries thought this probably a vestige of human sacrifice, of children, to aid the sowing.”
The New York Times of December 24, 1991, featured an article on the origins of Christmas customs, including gift giving. Simon Schama, professor of history at Harvard University, wrote: “Christmas itself was superimposed over the ancient festivals that celebrated the winter solstice . . . In the third century, when sun cults like the Mithraic religion of Persia found their way to Rome, days in December were given over to celebrate the rebirth of Sol Invictus: the invincible sun. . . .
“The early Church in Rome had a particularly hard battle against two other great pagan festivals, the week-long Saturnalia, which began Dec. 17, and the Kalends, which greeted the New Year. The first festival was a time of licensed misrule, often presided over by a lord of merriment, not so much Santa as fat Saturn himself, the orgiast of eating, drinking and other kinds of naughtiness. It was during Kalends, when the year changed, however, that gifts were ritually exchanged, often tied to the boughs of greenery that decorated houses during the festivities.
“The attitude of the early church toward all this indecent jollity was predictably frosty. Its fathers, notably the fulminating St. John Chrysostom, urged no compromise with heathen abominations. . . . Since there was no general agreement about the exact date of the birth of Jesus . . . , it must have seemed helpful to have it supersede the Saturnalia . . . So the rebirth of the sun became instead the birth of the Son of God . . .
“In the same way, the Kalends were replaced by the Feast of the Epiphany, and the gifts and trinkets that pagan Romans had given each other became instead the homage paid by the three kings to the new King of the World. By the middle of the fourth century, the basic features of the Christmas calendar were set for good.”
While informed people readily acknowledge the pagan origin of Christmas and its customs, many argue that such origin really does not matter. Responding to Professor Schama’s article, early this year a retired rabbi wrote in a letter to the Times editor: “The origins of an institution have nothing to do with its value today.” Regarding Christmas and other such celebrations, he claimed: “Their celebrants endow them with a new meaning that gives purpose to their own lives and lifts their spirits in exultation.”
Yet, do Christmas celebrations lift spirits in exultation and produce fine Christian fruitage? Frankly, as readily acknowledged, the fruitage is commonly bad, not good. Moreover, should Christians borrow from pagan religious celebrations? The Bible urges: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? . . . ‘“Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,” says Jehovah, “and quit touching the unclean thing.”’”—2 Corinthians 6:14-17.
Remember, too, what Jesus said about worship of Almighty God: “Those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Thus, if our worship is to be acceptable to God, it must be based on truth. Yet, Christmas is promoted as the birthday of Jesus Christ even though it is not. And what about the supposed magical gift-bringers of Christmas, such as Santa Claus? When children are led to believe that gifts are received from such ones, does this not actually deceive the children?
If you really care about God, you will obey his command to quit participating in that which is religiously unclean. Do you care enough about truth to shun a holiday that features lies?
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Does it make sense to deceive children by telling them that Santa Claus brings them presents?