From the line “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” we get two disturbing directives: that because God gave us his Son at Christmas, we must give to each other, and to charity. And we must give generously.
Why? Because retail needs you; the majority of its annual taking is acquired around Christmas. Your city, nay country’s economy depends on your buying into the consumerism that Christmas has become an excuse, if not a byword for. It’s celebrating capitalism – both the dream of fluffy families, and of love being shown by gifts, sometimes which are unsuitable, and which creates debts and fear to fulfil. The debt industry also does well out of Christmas, using social expectation to goad us into showing affection and thus our worth by what we have purchased or provided. (I note that many old ‘debts’ are revived at Christmas – collections agencies are active at this time of year and I find that especially reprehensible). Love is shown through stuff, say these prophets of Mamon, and status is shown through stuff. As kids and teens we asked each other, “what did you get?” As older people, it may become “who are you with?” or “what will you give?” All these questions are about acquisitions.
In my family, we give the presents of our presence with one another.
As for the other giving – to charity – the logic there also mystifies me. Charity of course can include church funds as well as special appeals.
There is a practical predicament – that if we are doing 1) above, we are more limited in 2). Those of us not receiving Christmas bonuses from work, or involved in retail or entertainment, will be stretched to pay for Christmas gifts, food, travel, work outings and parties. And on top of this – winter bills. So why do charities feel that this is a time for them to benefit out of already scooped out resources?
It’s actually supply and demand, and a captive market: capitalise on the full pews at Christmas services, and that non-attenders will attend at this time of year. Give them a bit of hearty cheer, bit of entertainment, some traditional refreshments, and they’ll fill the offering bowls. As cute kids pick noses in quilted quasi middle eastern costumes, or surly shepherds bark out local lines, as we sing cultural favourites, with or without personal meaning for us, there’s a trade off: we’ve provided your traditional seasonal needs – now stuff those little envelopes.
Charity is rather a nebulous term, for it refers to a legal set up of an entity, not necessarily good work. Are all charities automatically ‘worthy causes’? Are their causes fought for in a worthy way? Many of us are concerned that what we give isn’t going to help the cause that we’re touched by, or that the charity’s means of doing so is dubious. My experience of Oxfam revealed it to be a hardheaded disorganised business with charitable status that makes its logline ‘make poverty history’ ironic in the way it remunerates its staff – or doesn’t. A popular Christmas charitable cause, the Salvation Army support and administer workfare, which is a form of modern slavery. Do other charities involve enforced medication or proselytisation or animal cruelty in the name of care?
It’s worth asking for more information than is on those begging leaflets.
I’ve also seen a church run an alternative service which was all about the assumption that none of us could relate to the themed suffering connected to the nativity story. Not that the leaders got to know us well enough to know what we were going through. But we were expected to channel our pity into one bucket, going to Christian Aid, as a sleight of hand from solidarity to financial support.
Perhaps one could argue that this drive to donate is a natural extension of pass it on, pay it forward – we’ve got a gift, so gift to someone else. Don’t only give to those you know or who will give back. Yes, there’s a Bible verse to support that.
But if we need to seek a biblical mandate for our actions and beliefs – and I don’t think we do – then be aware that this giving at Christmas, or because of Christmas, isn’t in scripture.
Checking a concordance reveals that Biblical mentions of gifts or giving are about
1 – thanks and praise to the Lord
2 – sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament
3 – spiritual gifts in the New
and the nearest we get about the gift of Jesus is of God’s grace. Even the 2 Cor 9:15 passage I started with isn’t directly about Jesus’ entry into the world.
I’ve known the offertory hymn be “Give Thanks” – for God has given Christ his Son, but the verse and idea that chorus is based on is under point 3 – gratitude; and the upshot is the poor feeling rich – not so that they do a widow at the temple and pour their meagre funds into their place of worship.
The consequence of John 3:16 – the most famous verse about God’s giving his Son – is that there’s no condemnation for believers, but instead eternal life. It’s a verse I now find less palatable, for it pairs gifts with threats. Perhaps exhortations to give also have a dark side.
And many theologians would argue that the real gift of Jesus wasn’t so much his being born – that is necessary for the rest – or even, just his ministry, although his teachings impress and inspire even nonchristians. No, Jesus’ ultimate mission was his death and resurrection. Hence the real showing of God’s grace, the ultimate gift of Jesus’ earthly life, is in the cross and tomb. Yet Easter giving is much less than at Christmas– eggs abound, but not parties, presents, donations or consumerism.
So Christmas giving is not a scriptural mandate. In John 10, Jesus gave ‘a new commandment to love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples….’
Love does not have to include gift aid envelopes and big cheques, queues in department stores, debts and guilt. Jesus’ real gift dealt with guilt and shows us that God’s love subverts earthly ethos.
If you want to use Christmas as a time to give, then do, but I encourage thinking carefully about the charity you support. If you want to buy presents, I’m not exhorting you to stop. But I am exhorting: stop manipulating us, advertisers, and stop twisting Christmas into a major revenue collection time under the guise of seasonal spirit, or worse, Christian duty.
Stop using peer pressure of offering buckets and sad eyes of supposed recipients.
I like that it’s the birth, rather than the death, which we celebrate as a gift, making the whole of Jesus’ life matter, and not fixating on his cruel end. The fuss about Christmas stems from mainstream attempts to gazump the major Pagan festival of Solstice and Yuletide, although we’ve made Christmas pagan with a small p: it’s usurped by secular Western culture; actual Pagans are very spiritual people and this season is very meaningful to them and considered a High Holy Day. Here, Christians are doing as the pagans with small p do.
Christmas is not a time of giving, by any theological or scriptural or even logical discourse. Christmas is a time to celebrate a particular gift which – and not store vouchers – is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Or rather – a once for all gift that produces grace ad infinitum, all year round.