This time of the year presents us with many opportunities to focus on gift giving. Often, people frame this season in terms of a dichotomy between selflessness and selfishness. Resist selfishness. Be generous. Religious leaders, poets, sensitive souls whisper. Amid the roars of commercialized Christmas which ring in our ears from October 31st through December 26th, we are inundated with messages about purchasing things, both for ourselves and others. Although many critique the mass consumerism of the holiday season, rightfully stating that it clouds the meaning of the holidays themselves, culturally and collectively, we lack a full understanding of generosity.
In my church growing up, each Christmas service concluded with a rendition of “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” (Yes, there is a song entitled Happy. Birthday. Jesus.) A very brave child, no more than ten years old, would step forward to sing, “Happy birthday, Jesus. I’m so glad it’s Christmas. All the tinsel and lights, and the presents are nice, but it’s all about youuuuu.” I can still hear the tune in my head.
It felt like nails on a chalkboard to me, no matter how sweet the child singing it was. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hallmark Channel movies as much as the next Midwestern girl, but the mix of images tinsel and presents while gesturing towards the birth of Jesus, in church, felt hollow and tinny.
The story of Christ’s birth in the New Testament is not a cute story. It is a gritty story, filled with joy, bated breath, politics, forced migration, and violence. Christmas is a reminder of the imperfect, brutal, and breathtaking moments that mark human life. Christ’s birth is framed in paradox, at once violent and gorgeous, at once world-shifting and common. Christ was a vulnerable infant born on the floor of a barn and a refugee fleeing the violence of a power hungry dictator. Christ is born in contradiction, what one of my theology professors describes, as “wrapped in scandal.” Christ’s beginning story reminds us that in the midst of chaos, we must find the light. A full story for another time, I suppose.
Songs like “Happy Birthday, Jesus” paired with Target sales and one-day soup kitchens give us the impression that generosity is demonstrated through discrete acts. Something like, “Here, I will give you this scarf or this cup of soup to illustrate how generous I am.”
Holiday gifts are not, by any means, inherently bad. Gifts demonstrate thoughtfulness and kindness. We bond with others through offering new things to friends, family members, even strangers. However, true generosity is much more profound than gifting physical objects. Generosity is not an action; it is a state of being.
Generosity grows from the soil of the soul. If the soul has been left unattended or abandoned through overwork, avoidance, or criticism, the soil will become dry, cracked, and depleted. Nothing beautiful can grow and sustain itself without ongoing love and care. In contrast, if the soul is cultivated and enriched through rest, joy, and connection, then the flowers of generosity can bloom abundantly enough to be shared with others every day. We must nurture the soil of our souls in order to be generous.
The beginning of winter and the end of the calendar year bring many happy traditions that we each hold dear and perhaps that have very little to do with an accurate reading of Christ’s birth story, like for instance, decorating a Christmas tree. Gathering at this time of year, although, is special because love and communion become the central focus. In celebrating with loved ones of all faiths in unique ways, we create the space to dwell in generosity, to cultivate gratitude, process what it means to be fully human together, and uncover renewal.
2017 was not an easy year for many people I know. This year was hard on families, on communities, on our country and world. Many of us are tired and feel endlessly frustrated, anxious, and afraid for what future years will bring for our loved ones and the earth.
Our souls may feel drier than during previous times, but if we find time to cultivate our inner gardens with those we love, we will all honor the resonance of this season more fully. Generosity heals us all. Amid sighs and confusion, or joy and celebration, wherever you find yourself spiritually this season, remember this world is still hungering, still waiting, still desperate for the gifts grown from the soil of well-tended souls.