A Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta recently performed a small experiment and filmed the results. They brought in young children whose economic status was such that they might not receive any gifts for Christmas and asked them what they would choose if they could have their dream present. The kids wanted everything from a laptop computer to more traditional toys. Then they were told to name something that might be good for their parents. The ideas included jewelry, a big screen television, articles of clothing and such.
The children were delighted with the idea of being able to provide a surprise for their family members but soon learned that there was a twist. They would either receive the gift for themselves or the one that they had chosen for the parent. With the two items sitting in front of them every youngster took only seconds to conclude that giving was far more important than receiving and they picked the presents for their loved ones, noting that nothing was better than family. In the end the children actually received both gifts but not before genuinely believing that they were giving up their own dream presents.
Human nature tends toward goodness rather than evil. We see news reports of vile incidents but given the millions upon millions of people on this earth they are the exception rather than the rule. One of the reasons that we are so shocked when violent acts occur is because the odds of their happening is generally low. Mostly our world is filled with decent people who have generous spirits much like the children who were willing to sacrifice their hearts’ desires for their parents.
The kids were correct in noting how much their moms and dads had done for them. The average parents do incredible things for their children on a regular basis, setting needs and desires aside just so the little ones will enjoy safe and happy lives. Their offspring are rarely far from their thoughts. They feed and clothe them and provide as safe and loving environments as possible. They teach them and play with them. Theirs are full time jobs that begin early in the morning hours and extend until late at night, sometimes with interruptions that deprive them of sleep. The routines last for years and even when the children leave home as adults the parents still worry and fret. Somehow the caring behaviors are almost instinctual with models for parenting passed down from one generation to the next.
Of course we hear of want, abuse, neglect, broken families and we worry that our society is losing some of its vitality. We wonder if single parent homes are as strong as those with two parents. We fret that very non-traditional situations may harm children. I have found in my own experience that as long as the household is centered on love, kids will thrive. They do not need things as much as they need to know that someone truly cares for them.
I often hark back to stories that I have heard from my students. I recall the little girl whose only wish was that her mother might receive a mattress from Santa Claus so that her parent would no longer have to sleep on a pallet on the floor. I think of the young man whose goal of graduating from high school was motivated by the sacrifices that his mom made everyday. His eyes filled with tears as he thought of her arriving home from work late each night after toiling for fifteen hours. He spoke of her exhaustion and swollen ankles and her never ending desire to build a better life for him. He was determined to do whatever it took to pay her back for all that she had done.
My own mother had few possessions. Her focus had always been on me and my brothers and eventually on her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her closet held more gifts for us than clothing for her. She kept a card table at the ready for wrapping presents and shopped for bargains all year long, storing items away for birthdays and Christmas. She enjoyed our excursions to stores where she might find a seventy or eighty percent off sale with additional coupons that brought prices down to a range that she might afford. She combed through aisles searching for just the right delights for each person. When the time came to present her treasures to the lucky recipients she felt as joyful in watching them react as she would have if she had been surprised with a brand new car. Like the children who were willing to give up their own gifts, our mama essentially chose to sacrifice her personal desires in favor of ours over and over again.
I have enjoyed reading since I was quite young. One of my favorite stories from O. Henry was The Gift of the Magi. It is a Christmas classic that tells of a young man and woman with very little money who struggle to purchase each other the perfect gift. The ironic tale demonstrates our human tendency to go to great lengths to bring happiness to those that we most love.
In this holiday season the stores will be filled with people hoping to find the perfect gifts to demonstrate their profound feelings for their families and their friends. Some see this tradition as being too commercial but I choose to think of it as an outward sign of our never ending love for those who mean so much to us. We may sometimes overdo things a bit but for most of us the intent is as pure as the characters in O. Henry’s story. The season of giving derives from the ultimate sacrifice that the baby born in a manger in Bethlehem so long ago would eventually make for all of us, His very life.
This is my favorite time of year when our generous natures shine forth in the lights and the many symbols of the season. Whether we celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or simply enjoy a holiday from work there is a happiness all around the world that comes from sharing our blessings with others. We’ve been celebrating and giving in the middle of winter for centuries and something tells me that we will continue for many more, at least I hope that is the case. Underneath all of the tinsel is love.