Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Spirit Of Giving

For the Germanic peoples (which description covers most of northern and western Europe, parts of what is now the United Kingdom, and the Scandinavian countries), the midwinter season around the Winter Solstice was marked by the Yule celebration. Aside from a few traditions that almost everyone knows (the tree, the log, etc.) very little direct knowledge of that celebration has made it down to us today, but one thing that we do know is that part of the celebration included a belief that Odin (or his local variation), known during this season as Giftbringer or the Yule Father was believed to travel around and deliver gifts to his people. He was generally seen as wearing heavy fur-lined robes and with a long, flowing white beard. Sound familiar?

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Greek Christian bishop in 4th Century Turkey, who was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. His Saint's Day was celebrated on December 6, and traditionally included giving small gifts to children in his honor. After Pope Julius I established the date for Christmas as December 25, the two celebrations quickly overlapped, and St. Nick's tradition of gift giving was soon an integral part of the holiday season. During the Reformation, the veneration of saints fell out of favor with the Protestant churches, and the idea of the Christkind (literally, "Christ child") was introduced to take the place of St. Nicholas as the gift bringer for the Christmas season. The Christkind would later become re-integrated with the idea of St. Nick, and would become the name Kris Kringle.

One of the reasons that the removal of St. Nicholas from the Christmas season did not fully take even among Protestants was because the Dutch would not let him go. Though I haven't been able to find any reliable information on why the Dutch were so stubborn (if anyone knows, I would be fascinated - I love good history stories), St. Nick remained a part of their traditions and was brought to the Americas with the waves of Dutch immigrants, where Sinterklaas (his Dutch name) would evolve to the now more familiar Santa Claus.

At around this same time, the English were importing Father Christmas, and the French were importing Papa Noel, two very similar figures who were usually portrayed as bearded men in red robes trimmed with white fur who traveled around delivering presents to children who had been good throughout the previous year. These presents were usually left in shoes or stocking that had been left out for that purpose, which is the origin of our modern custom of the Christmas stocking. Both figures were seen as great jovial men known for good cheer, whose arrival was anxiously awaited each year by expectant children.

St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Papa Noel, and even Odin Giftbringer all figure together to form the modern idea of Santa Claus, the jolly bearded man who slides down chimneys to bring presents to good boys and girls around the world. All of these and so many more make up our cultural idea of the Christmas season. There are various differences and similarities, but they all share the idea of gift giving. There is even a list of “Christmas gift-bringers by country” on Wikipedia, which is rather long and still listed as “incomplete”. There are people who will argue endlessly over the meaning of Christmas, but one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is the idea that you cannot have Christmas without giving.

I don’t claim to have The Answers, ever - I believe a large part of the point of life is to ask the questions, one leading to another, revising the answers as new answers are discovered, which makes having any one right Answer somewhat difficult, to say the least - but this, to me, has always been the “reason for the season,” so to speak. The point is not why we give, or even necessarily what we give, but that we give. Through giving, we make the world better for someone, which usually has the net result of making the world better for all. If it’s done right, that is. If giving is truly giving, and not the false ideas that often go around disguised as giving but really have more to do with taking, then the giver and receiver both benefit, and the world improves.

It is possible that I have a perspective which offers some unique insight into this season. Though raised in a Christian church, I was raised in a church that did not recognize religious holidays, but did not go so far as to prohibit holidays. It was a culture that split the difference in a way I have not seen among most others where such holidays are usually either all religious or entirely banned. We celebrated things like Halloween and Christmas, but without the slightest hint of theology, so we always and only focused on the secular elements of family, giving, and universal goodwill. As such, I don’t share the modern confusion when I see families celebrating Christmas in different manners. I just see families celebrating together, and I believe this is a good thing. If more families celebrated together, more children might grow up learning the value of family and, though that, the value of love and the value of life. To me, that sounds like just about the greatest gift we could offer to the modern world.

We live in difficult times, but we live in amazing times. We have so many options available to us today, it is discouraging that so many people so often choose the negative options. Still, if more of us keep choosing the positive, we can continue to push the world toward the better, and it isn’t really a choice if the alternative isn’t available.

The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and the spirit of giving is always at odds with the spirit of taking. We have no shortage of such open conflict in the world right now, but this is a good time to take stock, a good time to re-evaluate whether one is giving or taking. Are we lifting the world up, so that we all can see from a higher perspective, or are we driving the world down so that we can only see over the heads of the oppressed? It makes a difference. One improves the whole, and helps everyone to see further. The other might let the individual see further, but not as far, only over the heads and backs of the whole, and only temporarily. When you stamp down on one surface so that you can see past it, that ledge tends to collapse over time. Then everything falls, and we certainly don’t get to see further.

This year, gather your family close to you and celebrate the spirit of giving. Give the gifts of love, togetherness, and universal goodwill. There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Can you imagine what we could do if we were all giving, what that combined effort could accomplish? Isn’t it about time we find out? Merry Christmas to all, and to all, Good Night.

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