A Christmas Sonnet to Charity by J. Roger Wilson, December 2015
Getting gifts from Santa Claus seems like a merry game
Of playful fun and sweet surprise, delighting childish hearts.
Oh, sometimes, people note that greed inspires a selfish frame
Dismissed as harmless custom that no long-term harm imparts.
Sad, this practice has evolved, just like that jolly elf,
To turn a good man’s kindly acts from helpful charity.
No longer thought for kids in need but those who think of self,
It’s even lost its mystery to “What can I get for me?”
Charity begin at home is what they used to say;
Helping children learn to give is what we need to do.
Old St. Nick of generous heart has shown the better way
Like him we ought to find poor kids to make a custom new.
As families let us look beyond the list of things desired;
Share instead with those in need by Jesus’ love inspired.
I used to think I’d like to create a one-man show that began with the person of St. Nicholas and his Christmas custom of giving to poor children and conclude with Santa Claus kneeling at the manger. I’ve always been a bit intrigued by the evolution of one to the other and of all the variants in cultures around the world.
The changes in the character have paralleled changes in the customs of Christmas giving. Instead of poor children, it was good children who received gifts and then simply children. The lesson went from one of kindness and generosity to rewards for doing good to one of entitlement. At the same time, the season has lost much of its reverence and replaced it with consumerism, materialism, and greed. Neither God’s gift of his son nor St. Nicholas’ gifts to the needy are much remembered, even among Christians.
I am suggesting a new custom based on Nicholas’ old one.
I’m not a parent, so I offer this idea humbly. We need a new tradition more reflective of Jesus and suitable for celebrating his birth, and also one that counters gently the current greed-oriented commercialism.
My idea is to begin seeking opportunities to those in need, just at the family level. It may be hard, at times, because our approach to welfare encourages dependency and entitlement. Yet many, especially in crisis, have not and perhaps do not want to access that system. Look for them. Focus on kindness, even do what you do anonymously. It’s your family’s tradition but make in thoughtful and helpful. When children are small, just do it, with simple explanation. As they get older, unleash their eyes and creativity. Don’t abolish gifts for them, but reign them in and keep them modest, not the center of everything. Even consider making “Santa’s” gift contingent on their own generous giving attitude.
I think we must also emphasize stories that inspire a kind, generous spirit. St. Nicholas is one. The Bible has others. Use those who were present: “And the shepherds came to the place where Jesus lay…and they gave each other gifts!” or “Remember Johnny’s birthday party when no one gave him anything?” or “Why did the wise men bring Jesus gifts? Weren’t those strange gifts? I wonder what happened to them.” Avoid linking the Christmas story to politics and government. We don’t look to them to do good for us.
I believe we need to do more with “Love your neighbor”, not just at Christmas but all the time. This isn’t an evangelistic technique; it is the very spirit of our faith, which is dead without works. We need to talk less, be more patient, and demonstrate our faith by our works. Working that attitude into our Christmas customs is a good place to start, as we teach and model our love to children and to each other.