Christmas is obviously a Christian holiday; but it reflects historical traditions of giving and celebrations of life that lie at the heart of most of the world’s major religions. Few people in the Christian world seriously believe that Christ was born on December 25th. Some trace the holiday’s roots to ancient Babylon, where, they claim, a feast honoring the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25th. The festival was supposedly characterized by raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving. Others trace the origins of Christmas to the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17th and 25th. Ancient writers describe this celebration as a time of widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; and consuming human-shaped biscuits (had a gingerbread man lately?). One can easily understand why the Christianized Roman state might have wanted to transform Saturnalia into something more demure.
A festive celebration during the heart of winter probably seemed like a good idea. Following closely on the heels of the winter solstice, the date helped usher in the return of the sun and longer days. As noted above, the tradition of giving gifts during the Christmas season was also borrowed from earlier traditions. The Romans had traditionally exchanged presents during New Years’ celebrations. Sliding that tradition ahead a week and tying it to the biblical story of the wise men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus was probably a very simple thing to do. Merchants in the Christian world are certainly grateful for a tradition of gift giving.
If you follow the gift giving tradition during this season of the year, you might want to think about giving to those less fortunate than yourself. Oxfam America’s web site has a few non-traditional Christmas gifts you could consider. For example, you could give a grove of “miracle trees” for $30. According the site, the “miracle tree” is “the remarkable moringa tree” which “is cultivated in many tropical countries and earned its nickname because its leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, and seeds all pack a punch. It contains rich amino acids and has antibiotic properties. But the most widespread use of the moringa is for water purification at the household level. Your gift will help a family learn to plant their own trees and produce enough seeds to purify their drinking water.” Other non-traditional gifts include, a school meal program for a child ($25); a goat ($50) — the site says the goat is a best seller; a vegetable garden ($30); a water purifier ($35); a dozen chicks ($40); children’s books ($18); soap ($12); a school desk and chair ($35); mosquito nets ($18); or you could build a new school ($1500).
New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof also offers a unique list of organizations to which you could choose to give [“A Most Meaningful Gift Idea,” 24 December 2009]. He writes, “After all, nothing says ‘happy holidays’ like donating in Aunt Tilda’s name to build a composting toilet in Haiti or to deworm kids in Kenya. And a deworming pill will never be regifted!” Of course, you don’t have to spend money to give a gift. Giving of your time and service could be a wonderful present for someone in need. In his famous book The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” However you choose to celebrate the season, I hope you find great joy and happiness.