Source for this image here.
"... be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." (Hebrews 13: 5)
Apart from a couple of bits of knitting and sewing, and some final bits of cooking, I am pretty much finished with my Christmas gift preparations. As a family, we don't give nearly as many gifts as you might expect for such a huge number of people (between us Papa Bear and I have 16 siblings - so even without all the aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and so forth, we have a lot of people that we could be giving gifts to). Instead, we choose to give "family gifts" so that each family unit gets one present to share. This makes it much easier - not only for us, but for them to, for then they do not feel obligated to reciprocate with lots and lots of gifts for our side of the family.Present-buying is one of the aspects of Christmas that can cause people a lot of worry and stress. It can be especially troublesome for families with children, that don't have as much money as they'd like to be able to spend on presents, or for those who have a great many of different ages and tastes to buy for. That is one of the factors that led us to prefer doing "family gifts". For the cubs of course, we do give individual gifts, but we have a limit that we stick to for spending, and they don't get quite as many presents as some of their contemporaries. Older children are harder to buy for than younger ones, who aren't perhaps so swayed by popular culture. In our family where we have tended to avoid the influence of the wider world, we have never felt pressurised to buy our children the latest "must have" gadjets and such like, but neither have we felt that we need to go all-out trying to find the perfect present. Gift giving is, after all, only one element of what is - and should be - a feast day that celebrates the birth of our Saviour Christ Jesus. It should be about that primarily, and the presents ought only to have a far more minimal role. But in many households, Christmas is all about nothing but the presents - and unfortunately, society as a whole has a great deal to blame for this.
Of course most people who celebrate Christmas do choose to exchange gifts in some way. It is part of the tradition of Christmas and of course, the selflessness that giving (rather than receiving) entails is a fundamental element of the sacraficial aspects of Christian faith. We are imitating Christ's selfnessness when we choose to spend what resources we have on those that we love rather than on ourselves. Sometimes it's easy to get swept along with the popular attitude, however, that the more you give, the greater you love. There's a lot of guilt attached to this - it's why mamas that go out to work will often say that they do so to give their children a better life materially - as if the material aspects are more important than the spiritual or emotional ones - ones that actually don't need to cost anything at all. The guilt that a working mother inevitably feels as she leaves her child at the day-care centre or door of her child-minder is translated into a need to compensate for what she is not able to give through the lack of her physical presence in her child's life. However, these material things can never be a true substitute for real love. The yearning and searching for love, when furnished with possessions, can never be satisfied. Children who have been raised to believe that "things" will compensate for love and security, will grow into adults who chase impossible dreams - who yearn for the next status symbol, and believe that their worth is measured in what they own.
It's a terrible message to be giving our children and unfortunately it is compounded in everything that modern Christmas represents. It's so difficult not to be influenced by the call of the supermarkets, department stores and malls at this time of year. We're presented with images of the "perfect Christmas" wherever we look - and at the same time, encouraged to part with money we don't actually have, in order to achieve it. We're encouraged to believe that all will be well, that if we give in to the call to spend money in order to be loved and feel loved, the world will be well. What a sad misconception this is.
Last week I listened on the radio to "Desert Island Discs", a show I don't usually tune into because I don't always enjoy the musical choices that the famous people featured in the show choose. However on this occasion the person being interviewed was the art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett. Sister Wendy is a Carmelite Nun who lives as a hermit in a caravan in the grounds of a convent, spending almost her entire life in solitude. She rises at midnight each day to spend seven hours in prayer, before attending a daily Mass. I was fascinated to hear the story of a girl who yearned to become a nun from a very early age. I found her to be absolutely charming, and was very interested in many of the things that she commented on, particularly the pieces of music that she chose, which were all lovely to listen to. One of the things she said which I noted especially was her answer to the interviewer's question about how she found the "outside world" when she left the security of the convent to come to the recording studio. Sister Wendy's answer was that what she noticed most of all was how so many people seemed to be "searching for something they had not yet found", and that when she observed this, she often prayed for them that they would find whatever it was that they were searching for.
I found this comment particularly moving - and particularly pertinent, at this time of year, too. For someone whose vocation has been to eschew almost all the trappings of modern life, and to live in almost complete solitude, to be able to observe that other people seemed to lack something that she in fact had - not so much happiness, but contentment, sent to me a very important message. It is of course nothing material that can truly bring us contentment. Whatever we buy, or own, is not really ours to keep - it is God's (Psalm 50: 10 - 12). And only the gift of God's love will guide us to knowing true peace in our hearts. There's no guarantee that our lives will be easy or necessarily even happy - but if we accept God's will for us, whatever that may be - whether it is solitude in a caravan, or a busy mama to many, then we will at least be content. And no amount of money can buy that.
Tomorrow, I will continue on this theme a little more.