Sometimes I wonder what Christmas would be like if we got rid of presents.
We would have more time to sing carols and deck the halls with boughs of holly. Instead of spending Christmas Eve madly wrapping, we could gather around a wassail bowl with close friends and family to swap memories and aspirations. We would have time to step out under a starlight sky and imagine angels appearing to the shepherds as they tended their flocks at night. We could edge closer to the stillness that abides in the dark cold of midwinter, and take time to appreciate the warmth of the candlelight when we come inside.
I know the consumerism associated with Christmas today troubles many Quakers. Early Friends refused to celebrate Christmas and Easter, saying such rituals distracted from true religious experience, and many Quaker Meetings still do not hold special holiday services. Yet most of us – despite our misgivings – put presents under the Christmas tree as part of our holiday. Could there be a better way? How can we shake off the glitz and frenzy of the season to find ways of giving that uphold our Quaker testimonies of simplicity and integrity?
Quaker Earthcare Witness, a Quaker organization that addresses ecological and social crises from a spiritual perspective, suggests we practice “mindful giving” during the holiday season. Look for gifts that have little impact on the environment, such as refurbishing furniture or passing on beloved books. Or, instead of giving things, give a promise of an experience, such as a pledge to take someone dancing or make them a special meal. Write someone a poem, or play the piano for them. You can also gift people with a donation to their favorite charity, or membership in an advocacy group that promotes a cause they believe in. Or give someone an imaginative “coupon book” that might include a free garage-cleanup, lending your car or joining them on a hike.
Last Christmas my ninety-year-old mother gave everyone the most wonderful gifts. She didn’t know she was practicing “mindful giving,” but she was. Instead of buying presents for her many grandchildren, she went through her collection of framed artwork, books, kitchen treasures and knickknacks, and found something special for all of them. Geoffrey, an animal-lover, got the owl bookends carved from green marble; Craig, an electrical engineer, got his great-grandfather’s antique adding machine; college-girl Mary got an oriental jewelry box; and Joe, our pie-maker, got his grandfather’s beloved apron. Every one of them was touched to have something chosen just for them from their grandparents’ house, and my mother was thrilled to pass useful things on to the next generation.
When the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child, they meant them as symbols of honor and respect. Sometimes I feel we’ve lost the sense of reverence at the heart of gift-giving. Rather than rejecting gift-giving, perhaps we can embrace it as a chance to show those we love that we know who they are. Any gift carefully chosen—no matter how small or silly or homemade—can carry the message of love in this sacred season.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting