To the editor:
The recent arrival of snow is a clear sign of winter and the holiday season. One result is that people everywhere tend to band together a little bit more, knowing that while there may not be peace on earth, home, at least, can be a place of security and reassurance. While world events seem sometimes as if we were all afloat in the same small boat on a storm-tossed sea, our own personal port in heavy weather can be a very safe place indeed.
Christmas especially seems to symbolize this feeling, especially through the bonding of families and the giving of gifts. In recent years, however, the simple act of making a present to someone has become tainted by materialism and self-indulgence – what the poet Walt Whitman called “the mania of owning things.” The historical perspective shows that this has only recently been the case.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas was a time of solemn religious observance. It was not until the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the mass production and availability of material objects, that the giving of presents started to become prominent. Christmas acquired a more festive air when, according to tradition, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Queen Victoria’s Consort, introduced the German custom of Christmas trees to England.
Just as historic periods were called The Gilded Age or The Enlightenment, the present time might be called The Age of Stuff. As Christmas approaches this year, we buy things we really don’t need and often can’t afford as if some kind of contest were in place, one that we will always lose because more of anything can never be enough.
We all know that one object of the season is to give gifts of kindness and love and caring, and yet often those need not be tangible or confined to family or friends. Make a donation to a favorite charity. Help at a food bank or a library or a used clothing exchange. Visit a shut-in, reach out to someone who might be lonely or less fortunate – the choices are almost endless, but the result is the same: by the giving of your time and your interest, you enrich others as well as yourself.
We’ve all heard the cliche that it is better to give than receive, but that suggests that the two acts are separate. In fact, it’s not a choice of either-or, because they are closely related and very nearly the same. In giving to those we know and love and those we don’t know but who are in need, we do our part to make life a little better and happier, and the knowledge of that contribution can make receiving anything else unnecessary.
So as you set out presents under the tree, think about volunteering at the local animal shelter, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, chatting with a neighbor who might be spending the holiday alone. You’ll be richer for it, and so will they – and in a small but meaningful way, so will the world.