What Gifts Are For
by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Christmas is the time of giving, of generosity and welcome. And Santa Claus embodies all of our hopes and expectations around receiving and abundance. Or does he? Rev. Sara Ascher tells this story about one Christmas that particularly stood out from her childhood:
I had to have been about nine years old the year that Christmas didn’t come. My brother and I were being pretty awful to each other for weeks. We were arguing and fighting and picking on each other. You know, all the sibling stuff of pestering each other just to get a rise out of the other person. “He’s touching me!” “She’s looking at me!” Mom yelling, “Stop it, both of you!” She had warned us that the way we were behaving, we didn’t deserve Christmas, but we didn’t actually believe she meant it. So we kept on at each other right down to the wire of Christmas Eve.
Growing up, Christmas Eve in my home was when Christmas really arrived. No decorations were put up before then and though carols and TV specials were allowed, we had no lights or wreath or anything. All of it came Christmas Eve. As a single parent, this was brilliance on my mother’s part, reviving an old German family tradition. We helped with all the decorating, with the tree and the lights after church service. This kept us up late, listening to music and drinking eggnog, which meant we were more likely to sleep in on Christmas morning. Brilliant, I know.
But this Christmas Eve we went to service as usual, went to dinner at Mom’s best friend’s as usual, but when we got home, nothing. No advent calendars, no music, no tree, no wreath, no nothing; straight to bed. We put out our stockings with the hope they’d be full to bursting in the morning. We could maybe get over not having a tree, we could forget about eggnog, but presents—surely they would still come.
Nope. Bright and early Christmas morning my stocking at the foot of my bed lay flat but for a small bump in the toe. Disappointed, but not yet crushed, I reached in hoping to find the traditional orange, only to pull out a lump of coal. Seriously, nothing but a lump of dirty, gross charcoal sitting in the palm of my little hand.
As my brother and I stood in the living room with disbelief and tears in our eyes, Mom simply looked at us and said, “I told you if you weren’t better to each other, you didn’t deserve Christmas.”
Wow. That’s a pretty shocking story. Sure, we know that Santa is “making a list and checking it twice” based on “who’s naughty or nice.” But who would imagine that we could ever really end up on the naughty end of the spectrum. How naughty is too naughty? How much nice is enough nice?
These are pretty difficult questions, especially for Unitarian Universalists who hold as a basic tenet of our religion that we should always be striving to become better people, people who are making the world a better place. We know that we could always be better than we are. So what’s good enough to make it onto the nice list? What is good enough to deserve the overflowing stocking and the presents under the tree?
Well, I certainly can’t speak for Santa, but I think the answer comes in the word “gift.” Gifts are not things you get because you earn them or deserve them. Gifts are acts of generosity, not an evaluation of how good you are. Our Universalist forbearers were radical in that they declared that God was not, in fact, keeping a list of who was naughty and who was nice, who was saved and who was damned. God, they said, was Love freely poured out for everyone, without exception. God, Universalist Hosea Ballou said, wanted us to be happy—God’s goal was to “happify” us.
That’s what gifts are for. They are meant to happify people. Not to reward them for being good but to pour out some extra love and delight. Which is not to say that there isn’t a place in life for rewards for good behavior and unpleasant consequences for bad behavior. As parents we might carefully choose these consequences for naughty or nice, or the world might just supply those consequences as part of the natural way of things. (Chances are you will have more fun in the sandbox if you share your toys than if you hit.)
But Sara’s story is shocking because most of us think of Christmas as a time of giving, of “happifying,” not behavior modification. And I, for one, am good with that, whatever Santa might think. And not just for the one holiday.
I’m good with seeing the essential nature of the universe as being an outpouring of love for all beings. I’m good with kindness and generosity just because they are happifying for everyone involved. I’m good with the notion that life is full of gifts, most of them not wrapped and set under a tree, for which our only responsibility is to be delighted and grateful.