Saturday, December 13, 2014

Charity at Christmas has a long history

Spend, spend, spend!
Since the middle of November, my inbox has been cluttered with emails designed to entice me to spend, and despite repeatedly hitting ‘delete’, the pressure from retailers to shop, either online or in person, has been relentless.  Retailers’ claimed that Cyber Monday was my last chance to save before Christmas, and then continued to bombard me with sales. Soon, those same retailers will begin emailing me with their pre-Boxing Day and then Boxing Day sales pitches.  They must not be subject to the same anti-spam laws as not-for-profits because on Giving Tuesday, only one charity emailed me.

Giving Tuesday
Giving Tuesday began in 2012 as a response to the consumerism that follows American Thanksgiving and has spread to Canada and across the Atlantic. According to the Giving Tuesday website, it is a “global day dedicated to giving back”, and everyone can take part, “Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving.”

Gift giving from the first Christmas and beyond
There is really nothing new about practicing charity in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The idea goes back millennia, and may have had its origins with the magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus.  The magi believed that they were in the presence of a king, despite the unassuming and humble circumstances of the baby’s family and home. The men honored the little, but relatively poor, prince with the giving of expensive gifts.

Fast forward to the 10th century in medieval Europe. As the Duke of Bohemia, more famously known as Good King Wenceslas, was surveying his lands on the day after Christmas, he encountered an improvished peasant. Moved with pity, the duke returned to his estate, got the leftovers from his Christmas feast, and trudged through a storm to deliver food and drink to the peasant. While the story may be more legend than fact, Wenceslas did have a reputation for generosity and almsgiving.  Some historians think that Boxing Day, which was traditionally a day for charity, originated with Wenceslas.

Boxing Day was originally a day for charitable giving
There are two traditions from English history worth mentioning in the context of Christmas charity. They, too, are associated with Boxing Day, which overtime morphed into a consumer holiday and has little, if anything, to do with charitable giving.

In the Middle Ages during the liturgical season of Advent, the Church of England placed boxes in its churches to collect offerings for the poor. On the Feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, the boxes were opened and the monies were distributed to the poor. This was the day that the poor received the bulk of charity for the year. December 26 was also the day that the British aristocracy gave gifts, in boxes, to their servants.

Charity as a means of healing spiritual and social poverty
In the Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens exposed the selfish greed of the affluent who ignored the poor at Christmas. Through the transformation of Scrooge from a bitter, greedy miser to a warm-hearted philanthropist, Dickens imprinted on our collective imagination the role of charity in healing spiritual poverty, as well as alleviating the ills of physical poverty.

"Ignorance and Want"
Scrooge meets the social consequences of his greed
Woodcut by John Leech 1843

Today, ethical giving at Christmas time is gaining in popularity as baby boomers and seniors come to the realization that they have more stuff than they want or need. Ethical giving involves buying a gift through a non-governmental organization for an individual, family, community or project in the global south. Popular gifts include things such as seeds, farm animals, birthing kits and mosquito nets.

Those who prefer the traditional gift exchange with family and friends, but still want to shop altruistically, often purchase items produced in artisan or farming cooperatives in the global south.  Gift options range from fair trade coffee to high-end items like quality hand made leather boots or bags.

Charity at Christmas is a long established tradition. While I am unconvinced that we need a specific day dedicated to giving, Giving Tuesday can serve as a reminder that the Christmas season is not just about shopping for the best deals; it is also about recognizing and honoring the princely dignity that resides within every individual.

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