It’s common, around this time of year, to hear people grumble about Christmas being “too commercial.” They have a point, of course. It’s easy to get so caught up in the buying frenzy that we forget why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. But let’s not sell ourselves short. The observance of Jesus’ birth also inspires countless acts of kindness and generosity.
In communities nationwide, Americans volunteer their time and talents to run food banks, clothing drives and other charitable activities. Working in many cases through churches and other faith-based groups, they reach out to those in need. And they do it in large numbers. As former Attorney General John Ashcroft once noted, for every federal worker in social services, six private individuals are working in communities on behalf of the needy.
There’s nothing new in this. Such selflessness has long been a part of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French writer who toured America in the early 1800s, observed it firsthand. In Democracy in America, he wrote, “The Americans’ … regard for themselves, constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property for the welfare of others.” Throughout most of our nation’s history, it has been not the government, but privately run hospitals, orphanages, missions, churches and civic groups that have assisted the destitute and the downtrodden.
Then, as now, Americans didn’t do it for pay. They did it because it’s the right thing to do, particularly as Dec. 25 approaches. As Scrooge’s nephew remarks in A Christmas Carol, “I have always thought of Christmas-time … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
The natural generosity of many Americans, in fact, makes them easy prey for reports over-hyping the extent of hunger in our country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, released its annual report on “food insecurity” last month, and most media immediately misreported it, claiming that about 35 million people suffered from hunger at some point in 2006. But as Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation notes in a new paper, it’s important to take a closer look at the report.