Of all the rituals that mark this season, none is more misguided than the complaints about how crass and mercenary the holidays have become.
The laments begin early in November, when Santa starts showing up in TV commercials. They surge during the hyperactive shopping weekend that follows Thanksgiving. By the time Christmas (and Chanukah) are actually at hand, you'd have to be in a persistent vegetative state not to hear all the scolding about how the "reason for the season" has been lost amid the buy-one-get-one sales and the over-elaborate mall displays.
Even Pope Benedict joined the chorus this year. In the homily he delivered on Christmas Eve, he deplored "the superficial glitter" of the season, urging the faithful not to confuse the "commercial celebration" Christmas has become with its "true joy and true light."
I wouldn't presume to argue with the pope about the religious significance of Christmas, and I will readily acknowledge that the holiday shopping season can certainly be stressful, expensive, and more than a little materialistic. Nonetheless, as a measure of cultural and communal health, I can't help seeing this yearly impulse to shower friends and family with presents as one of our society's most endearing and heartening traits.
Ten days ago I took my 8-year-old son Micah to a local Dollar Tree Store, where he was eager to spend his savings -- 11 dollars and change, grubbily folded into a miniature wallet -- on Chanukah gifts for his family. We had done this together last year, and Micah had been besieging me to pick an evening when the two of us could make a return trip.
I found it a wonderful experience, no irony intended. Dollar Tree isn't exactly Tiffany & Co., and in any case Micah chooses gifts with all the sophistication and refinement you'd expect from a rambunctious third-grade boy who loves bugs and can never seem to keep his shirt tucked in. The presents he picked out for his mother included a desktop picture frame for her office, glow-in-the-dark necklaces ("Mama can wear them if she goes for a walk at night"), and two boxes of Milk Duds; for his teen-age brother he found an air horn, Lemonheads, and a container of "noise putty" that emits flatulent sounds when poked. A devotee of Martha Stewart Living the kid is not.
But whatever Micah may have lacked in style and taste, he more than made up for with the unfeigned delight he brought to the whole project. He couldn't wait to turn his little clutch of dollars into presents for the people he loves. He wasn't consciously trying to be altruistic or selfless; and he's never given 30 seconds' thought to the meaning of generosity. He was simply excited by the prospect of giving -- and indeed, when the moment came a few nights later to bestow his gifts on his recipients, he was practically bouncing up and down with elation.
If this is crass commercialism, let's have more of it.
Would modern society really be improved if the happiness of gift-giving were not an integral part of one special season each year? Granted, anything can be overdone, and materialism is no exception. And it is important to remember that the hustle and pressure of buying presents for loved ones doesn't reduce our obligation to give charitably and generously to the poor.
But how diminished our culture would be without that hustle and pressure. Children learn an important lesson when they see the adults in their world treat the joy of others as a priority worth spending time, money, and thought on. No one has to teach kids to be acquisitive and selfish -- that comes naturally -- but what an inestimable asset they acquire when they find out for themselves that it really is more blessed to give than to receive.
It is only a coincidence of the calendar that links Christmas and Chanukah; theologically the two holidays have little in common. But essential to both Judaism and Christianity is the principle of imitatio Dei, of striving to walk in God's ways, above all by being kind to others as He is kind to us. Isn't that what underlies the expense and scramble of our holiday gift-giving? In lavishing gifts on others, we reflect the openhandedness with which God lavishes gifts on us. Maybe that's not the entirety of the season's "true joy and true light." But if my 8-year-old's unaffected joyfulness is any indication, it makes a great start.