A truer spirit of Christmas

Published Tuesday, December 10, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

As Christmas approaches, I’m finding two vastly different images from recent news flashing through my mind.

The first is that of an early morning crowd of people surging and shoving for first access to Black Friday specials.  Apparently some punches were thrown, some people were hurt and some shots were fired.  But retailers indicate that over two million televisions were sold that day.

The second image is that of thousands of shocked, dazed survivors lined up in an orderly queue amid the rubble of Tacloban, Philippines, to receive emergency supplies.  For people who have just lost family members, friends and most of their life’s possessions, they’re remarkably – no, incredibly – civilized.  

Good intentions, questionable outcomes

It’s hard to witness the frantic consumer side of Christmas and not experience at least a twinge of unease.  To be sure, our intentions are noble: it’s the time of year when we express good feelings by giving to those dearest to us.

But unfortunately, our good intentions don’t always translate into good outcomes.  We often struggle for ideas, and end up giving things that are not useful or durable.  We feel obliged to reciprocate when gifts appear from unexpected sources, only because we don’t want to appear cheap, and end up giving something that is not wanted or needed.  We may spend more than we should, perhaps in atonement for time not spent together.  

Plus we create a mountain of trash.  We’d do well to put some milk and cookies out for our poor, beleaguered garbage man, because he hauls away half of what Santa hauls in, and then some.  How else could we make place for two million new televisions?  

Somehow, a deep, time-honoured celebration of love and hope appears to be slipping ever closer to becoming a shallow celebration of stuff.  

A better way

Perhaps there is a better way – a middle ground between unbridled consumerism and Grinch-like austerity that better reflects the true spirit of the season.  

Since most of our enduring joys come from our traditions and our people, bring on the eggnog and the get-togethers.  And cheers to thoughtful, reasonable gift giving too.  (Need ideas?  Think local; experiential; edible; fair trade.  Seek out durable; quality; no batteries; minimal packaging; recyclable.)

But since, in this blessed part of the world, most recipients of our gifts actually need very little, why not direct a portion of our giving to places where need is greater, whether a block away or a world away? 

  • We can help our local emergency shelter by buying a symbolic night of accommodation – just $10 at the Fredericton shelter!
  • We can help a needy family overseas by buying them a cow, a goat or other farm animal through wonderful organizations like Chalice and Plan Canada. 
  • Through UNICEF, we can buy new school supplies for a child unable to afford them, or help rehabilitate a child soldier.

A quick internet search will yield a myriad of additional options to suit the values and priorities of any donor.

If much of our joy at Christmas comes from giving, perhaps that joy is greatest when we give where need is greatest.  As recent images from the Philippines underline, there is no shortage of need.  Not for TVs, but for food – shelter – livelihoods. 

Become ‘a means’

A closing thought: maybe this Christmas we can draw inspiration from Pope Francis, who has made the poor his focus and humility his trademark.  Perhaps the Prayer of St Francis, inspired by the Pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi, best reflects the truer spirit of Christmas our world thirsts for: “Make me a means of your peace; where there is despair, (let me sow) hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy... for it is in giving that we receive”.