Giving and the holidays: making a change

“The Piety and Generosity of the Roman Women” by Nicolas Guy Brenet (1785).

Last year I wrote a letter to friends and family, and shared it on my blog, about concerns I was having about consumerism and the holidays (letter here). I told them that we’d prefer gifts be restricted either to things they make themselves or to charitable donations on our behalf. At the time I still felt my thoughts about this were evolving, and not sure where I’d end up. After a year of this approach, here is what I’ve noticed…

The approach of trying to give only created instead of purchased gifts still created stress during the approach to the holidays. It was very difficult to make the time needed to make custom gifts for friends and family. Accompanying the stress were feelings of guilt that not enough was done. Given what the holidays could and should be – something was still wrong with this picture.


The Problem

Gifts should be things given from the heart, as the occasions arise naturally. Perhaps the problem is in having a pre-designated hyper-gift-giving bonanza, all to taking place simultaneously? Such a thing seems like the perfect way to create a maximum of emotional stress, financial difficulty, and unfortunate gift-comparison-thinking. If we were to do this with other acts of kindness, friendship, or intimacy the craziness of it would be more apparent. Imagine if people in a romantic relationship decided to make love at a pre-designated regular day and time, ready or not (some do I’ve heard). Or, what if we decided we would go over to our sibling’s house on the 11th of June each year to be listening and supportive?

Still, it seems reasonable and good to have special times of the year. And it also seems appropriate to have times of the year where we celebrate generosity, sharing, and giving. But now I’m thinking that I may have been missing the point in focusing too much on whether a gift was purchased or made by hand. That focus does help to address the rampant consumerism facing our society. But when it comes to creating joyful and meaningful holidays, I see now that the real issue is forced reciprocal gift-giving at artificially pre-designated times. I’ve come to think this is a bad habit for our society, and one that would be healthy to break.


Reason for the Season: Really Meaning It

Should a person be generous? Yes, this is a character trait we should all try to cultivate, and giving habits are a part of that. But when we ritualize the purchase and exchange of goods at particular times, the ritual can easily become empty and hurried. Even if we spend a lot of money and make sure everyone on our list has received items of some designated appropriate value, does that annual activity really have the effect of cultivating a charitable character? It seems more like cramming for a test only to forget the material after, rather than a semester of stimulated learning. Does it really create a more giving society? Or, does it instead have more tendency to promote materialism? If we were to instead try to be more mindful to do things for others and give of our time and efforts to others throughout the year, this would go much further to promote generosity.

As for holidays, we always say that their true meaning is in the time we spend with family and friends, but we never really put our money where our mouth is. Even in our popular stories, such as “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (one of my favorites – spoilers ahead!), the Grinch is surprised to see the Whos singing even after he’s stolen their presents. Yet, the Grinch returns the presents at the end because he’s come to understand the meaning behind the giving. But, suppose he’d destroyed them before his conversion? Could we have really considered the story to have a happy ending if the presents were never received? The fact that the singing alone would be insufficient for the writer or the audience to consider it a happy ending suggests that we still haven’t learned the lesson the story has to teach.

A similar thing could be said of “It’s A Wonderful Life” (another favorite – and more spoilers ahead). George Bailey is in trouble after losing a great deal of money from his savings and loans business and in danger of going to prison. Distraught, he’s about to commit suicide before an angel teaches him how much he has to be thankful for and how important he is to others, despite the troubles. But as enlightened as the films message, it is still forced to undercut that message by giving its unenlightened audience (all of us) what we need to have a happy ending… Just after George learns the lesson that money isn’t important, the town shows up to donate to help him out and the film ends victoriously with a giant pile of money on his table.

Was the message supposed to be that money isn’t important? Or, was the message that if we don’t care about money that we will get it anyway (kind of a Chinese finger trap approach to greed)?  If the message in these stories is really true (and I believe it is), and if we had truly internalized that truth, then an imprisoned George Bailey with a family that loves him and empty-handed Whos joined in song should still be able to constitute a “happy ending” for us without the Hollywood twist. Sometimes the princess would be able to learn that love is what matters, choose the peasant boy, and then not have to discover that he was a prince in disguise in order to live happily ever after. In other words – if our stories are going to teach a lesson, they should mean it – and if we are going to practice a holiday, we should mean it.

What I would recommend is that we celebrate our holidays for their true purposes, and enjoy the company of one another, doing things together during this time. As for giving, let us decide against reciprocal mass-giving at pre-designated times.


What of Generosity, Giving, and Charity?

I would make one exception to this, which would be giving to charitable causes (including friends and family if they are in true need) – simply because that should never be discouraged. When it comes to holidays that are meant to celebrate and support generosity, I propose another way to do that. Instead, let us use the day to give proclamations, testaments, and invocations about the importance of giving and having a charity of spirit. Let us hold up noble examples of charity in our myths, in our fictional stories, and in current day examples. We can also personally reflect on how generous and ungenerous we’ve been over the past year, think about how we might be more giving in the future, and make resolutions to build those habits in the coming year. And then, of course, follow through when all the lights and decorations are gone.

This would be a far more effective way to promote and encourage real improvements in generosity. Meanwhile, it would have the secondary effect of removing the stresses and frustrations of massive shopping and purchasing that has come to accompany these times of the year, and pull the reigns in a little on materialism and consumerism.


This article resulted in an interview of DT Strain with John Hockenberry of “The Takeaway” for Public Radio International and WNYC, with the New York Times and WGBH Boston. You can listen to the program here:
Click here to listen to the interview


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2 thoughts on “Giving and the holidays: making a change”

  1. While I agree wholeheartedly with you on the subject of compulsory gift-giving, Daniel, I think the happy-ever-afters in the holiday stories should be taken as metaphors. The high point of the Grinch film is indeed the Whos singing communally sans gifts, but the point was not that they were happy without gifts, but that their state of contentment effected change on the Grinch. His "eyes were opened" and he had to express the change by returning everything he had stolen.

    In George Bailey's case, he had to be reminded that he was a person of value who needed to ask for help in order to receive it. He had become self-absorbed and self-pitying, contributing to his blindness to the riches he already possessed.

    To change consumer culture, we need to find some way to help people understand where true contentment (happiness) comes from, which is not materialism. I think embracing spirituality without dogmatism is a good start! 🙂


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