“Christmas is (ought to be) a reminder of hospitality denied by people but reversed by the merciful hospitality offered by God.”- (Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle)
I love Christmas. Everything about it! I love the rampant consumerism which most of us seem to have embraced with reckless abundance and unreflective spending (we incur debt), the feeling of camaraderie, the religious fervour, the generosity, the love, just about everything. But I do hate its corollary – the increased vigilance, the need for greater attention to personal and household security.
But there are many who abhor the season largely because of the overt consumerism and what some people see as the pressure of gift-giving. So, Christmas would be better if we could simply get off the consumer-driven train that increasingly defines the season. They would wish to wage war against Christmas as celebrated in the modern era. I do not let this faze me at all. People are happy, people are joyous, people laugh, people gather; meanness, for a short while, disappears. Yes, it does appear that today Christmas is less of a religious celebration and more of a cultural occasion with the attendant decorations, shopping and gifts and the over indulgence which takes many forms.
And gift-giving is a part of Christmas. We love opening a gift, however small. So, my gifts were wrapped and waiting to be delivered since October. I no longer buy the cards. These, as with the wrapping paper, the lights, the decorations, are also part of the consumerism and profit making associated with Christmas. I go for the lovely gift bags, but increasingly (if this were possible) with a view to making the minimum impact on the environment as is possible by buying bags made from recycled paper, when I can resist those artistic bags. I am just a “patsy” for a great looking gift bag. Christmas cards are just too expensive to purchase around these parts. I invest instead in the gift and the time it takes to select the gift. For the rest of the season, I shall watch as people go helter-skelter searching out gifts, buying, buying, buying, baking, baking, baking and be merry. I love it!
So why do we give gifts? We do so for a multitude of reasons as research has shown, but can be subsumed under three broad categories;
· Affection: Family and close friends
· Social obligation: acquaintances, co-workers, the hair dresser, sanitation workers and postal workers fall mainly in this category.
· Reciprocal trade: the “Big Swap” because our societies are gift economies.
I question however, why some self-confessed Christians bemoan the gift-giving. Did we not read in the Bible that gift-giving is a good thing? Was not Jesus presented with rather expensive gifts on his birthday by the magnanimous gift-givers? Frankincense, gold and myrrh! Yes, of course, there was the dark side of the gift-giving at the time, something that we choose to forget at this festive time of the year. Yes, we ought never to forget that Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Instead, we focus on singing carols, baking cakes, and having fun. And why not? Don’t we love it that we can watch some romantic and family-oriented Christmas movie? Does it not bring us joy? Don’t we lustily sing We Three Kings of Orient Are?
So Christmas, since at least the eighteenth century and the rise of the industrial revolution, seems to be intertwined with heightened commercialism and gift-giving. Christmas, like all other holidays, was viewed then and now by capitalists as an opportunity to maximize their profits and so it became inseparable from the celebration of Christ. It is now more a celebration of the secular than the religious.
Yes, there are those who will see the class issue bound up in the offering of expensive gifts to baby Jesus. But we must also recall that the working class, the peasants and the farmers were not forgotten in that story. They brought not tangible gifts to baby Jesus for they could not afford. What they brought was the gift of self, the gift of presence which is, therefore, often-times the present. And that is even more wonderful than the actual physical gift. As Bill Zalot said, “Giving your time and presence to another is a gift more precious than gold”. It is not always about receiving that much anticipated physical gift; it is also about giving of your time, of yourself. Perhaps if this is emphasized and recognized as the best gift ever, then the need for enhanced personal security and greater vigilance will be mitigated for the good.
Now, as a general rule, it appears that gift-giving is dominated by the following:
· Married women are the main gift-givers with gifts going equally to their kin and that of their husband’s.
· Women are more active gift-givers than men.
· Indeed, women give to a broad range of people when compared to men who tend to give gifts more often when it is related to a romantic relationship with women.
· On average, gifts given by men are more expensive than those given by women.
· Women are more attentive than men to the interests of the receiver, so women are more thoughtful in terms of the selection of the gift than men.
· Women are apparently more driven by the reciprocity of giving and receiving than men.
· Women not only give more, they also receive gifts more frequently.
· Men are defined more significantly by negative attitudes towards gift-giving. Perhaps it is because of the stress of selection and sourcing of that appropriate gift. In other words, women are more giving of their time than men. One researcher explained that this may be partly explained by their resentment at ‘engaging’ in what is culturally designated as women’s work.
· Women select most of the gifts given jointly by couples.
· Most gifts are given to relatives and family.
· And quite naturally, adults give more gifts to children than they receive from children.
But as we celebrate, as we engage in over-indulgence and enjoyment bordering on hedonism, let us remember the poor, those who have lost their livelihood on the eve of an important season to them, let us not forget those who are trafficked, women who are victims of domestic and gender-based violence, let us not forget children who are forced to endure unspeakable acts and brutality, slavery and forced labour, let us not forget the homeless and give to the homeless, the children center and the poor. Remember to express love and friendship in more than physical gifts, for your presence is a present (gift) in itself, far more valuable than the joy of opening a gift (which we may detest in any event), and remember those who are truly needy; for them, a gift, however, small will be more meaningful. Do not expect to receive, just give instead. That, for me, is the real joy of Christmas. I love a physical gift though, just as the feminine in me still loves a man opening a door for me. Chivalry is worthy. So, I am a conflicted individual, what of it?
Christmas is a joyous occasion, pregnant with meaning. Have a merry Christmas and remember the presence is the present, even with a physical gift.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)