The holiday season, which seems to begin these days in October right after Columbus Day, is now in full bloom. With it comes the usual cautionary sermons and columns about not forgetting the theological essence of the holidays. But instead of swimming against the tide of gift-giving, I want to embrace it. Herewith, I offer my full-hearted spiritual support of gift-giving.
I love giving and receiving gifts, and I do not consider holiday gift-giving to be a coerced, materialistic surrender. I don't know from whence the Grinchy view emerged that there is something wrong with holiday gift-giving, but it has surely taken root and placed an unnecessary burden of guilt on those whose only sin is a generosity of spirit and an urge to give gifts to family and friends, clients and customers, teachers and trainers, delivery people and postal people, service folk and sanitation engineers. What is so wrong with giving gifts to all the people we love or take for granted the rest of the year? The war against giving comes from our inner Scrooge, not our inner angels.
Of course, gifts are a not a replacement for love, but they are a legitimate token of love. To say you love people but believe that there is something materialistic and weak about buying them a gift for the holidays is both incongruous and contradictory. Gifts are just signs, sure, but they are signs that we mean what we say. Gifts express thanks to the many people who perform the thankless tasks that support and sustain our daily life. Gifts are ways to share our blessings and to show that we are not spending all our days consumed in self-adornment. Gifts are good.
Now, I freely admit that putting yourself into serious debt to give gifts you cannot afford is both foolish and unnecessary. Anyway, we are almost always more touched by the thought than by the cost of what we receive.
Here are some further suggestions for giving spiritually acceptable holiday gifts:
Make sure kids learn early how to buy gifts. Even if they are not yet working in the fields or shining shoes, kids need to learn how to give a good gift. This means helping them to observe and understand what the person they are shopping for loves. It also means learning how to give gifts that cost no money. My favorite kid gift is a handmade spiritual coupon book. One coupon could be presented for an immediate hug and kiss. One could be for an immediate cleaning of their room. One could be for combing the dog or helping to fold laundry or helping to unload groceries. Older kids can offer coupon books providing free baby-sitting or free cooking of one dinner. Even adults can give great coupon books and fabulous, spiritually acceptable gifts. My friend Father Tom sent a letter one Christmas to his nieces and nephews offering to spend one day with them doing whatever they liked. The gift of time is the most precious gift we can give to those we love and often cheat as we put our work ahead of our families.
As for games and toys, I prefer ones that encourage thinking and problem-solving rather than zapping and killing. Still, I do not subscribe to the hysterical notion that our video games are training a generation of serial killers. I love microscopes and telescopes and science sets. I love gift certificates to legally download music by paying for it rather than stealing it and thus training a generation of habitual scofflaws. I love gifts of books. I love gifts of sports equipment or anything that encourages you and your kids to move your butts. I also love sacrificial gifts of service. Taking your kids to work in a soup kitchen over the holidays (and hopefully all year long) is the best antidote to spoiled children I know.
I do not love giving pets as holiday gifts. Animals should not be an impulse purchase. They require sacrifice and commitment. The best way I know to decide if you are right for a dog is to volunteer at your nearest guide dog for the blind foundation to be a "puppy walker" for a puppy destined to become a guide dog. You raise, house train and lavishly love the little beast from about eight weeks to about a year and a half, and then you return the dog for extended professional training. Yes, it is hard to return a dog you have come to love, but you are helping a blind person live a more independent life, and you are only on the hook for a year, so if you discover that you are not really pet people, you can terminate your pet days without having to terminate your pet. And if you discover in that year that you can love and support a permanent pet, you can then adopt or buy one whose only job will be to love you and bark at the mailman. If your guide dog does flunk out, like my dog Topper who was an inveterate cat chaser, you get to welcome him back into your home as your permanent pet.
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your gift-giving be right.
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah!