Charity may begin at home, as the saying goes, but charity flourishes at Christmas time. The fact that Christmas is conveniently located at the tail end of the calendar year, when our thoughts also turn to last-minute income tax deductions, may add to the dollars donated to charities in December. I prefer to think, however, that Christmas brings out the giver in us all, whether we are Christian or non-, agnostic or atheist. During the holiday season, there is a spirit of giving in the air that transcends religious belief or dogma. Charitable donations are simply a Christmas tradition.
Savvy charities know this, of course, and tailor their entreaties for donations to the gift-giving mindset. We can give cash donations in honor of someone living, or in memory of someone who has died. We can have a loved one’s name inscribed or otherwise immortalized as part of the deal. A gift to a charity in someone’s name is like giving twice. It’s a win-win proposition, especially when you want to give a present to the person who seemingly has everything.
True giving, of course, neither inquires after an organization’s status with the IRS nor requests an itemized receipt. Some movements state explicitly that any donations to the cause are intentionally not tax-deductible: according to this philosophy, giving should feel like giving, without the giver asking for any perks or payback. Giving implies a sacrifice on the part of the giver, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. The giver to any charity is free to choose to remain anonymous, as well as not to itemize any deductions for charitable giving at tax time, but I imagine this type of giver is a rare breed.
Christmas may be commercialized and commoditized, but in spite of that, one of the secret joys of the Christmas season is that just about everyone is moved to give their loved ones gifts. If materialism is the Christmas devil, charity is the Christmas angel. Those of us who may be Ebenezer Scrooges the rest of the year are surprised to feel the Christmas urge to be jolly and even generous. We put lights on our houses and drag trees through the front door whether or not we believe in the Incarnation. When snow falls gently at midnight and children fall asleep with cheeks flushed with anticipation of the morning, the weary world feels glorious, at least for a few hushed moments. Christmas allows the holy to sneak into the secular without anybody really minding. In my experience, the exact opposite of a ‘war on Christmas’ takes place every December, because the spirit of giving creeps into every corner of life. Our inner angel is awakened to the possibilities of the good we can do, here and now. The charity of the season transcends the labels of Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or the Winter Solstice.
Christmas is the time of year when we can contemplate peace on earth without feeling ironic, when we can sing in groups the carols we know by heart without feeling self-conscious, when we can wear garish sweaters in public without feeling ridiculous. Christmas may be the only time of year that we find the time to bake, or give in to having another glass of wine, or even consider drinking that fattening concoction called eggnog. We don’t mind that the electric bill in January will jump. We don’t mind going to the airport and driving a zillion times around that circle until our precious grown-up child appears at the curb, looking confident and cosmopolitan and just so good. We don’t mind the pine needles on the living room floor and the festive clutter on the kitchen counters. We don’t mind that our wallets are empty even as our cups are full. We feel expansive and merry, and we just want to keep on giving.
The frenzy ends, of course, and well it must, because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if we were so unreserved and celebratory all year long. Still, it’s a good prayer to pray that the easy charity of Christmas time might tiptoe into our hearts just a little bit during the rest of the year, that the generosity of the season might become an unsung habit. Charity does indeed begin at home, and many worthy charities rely on the generosity of others all year long. Perhaps the folks who do believe in the Incarnation will heed the call to be angels in the off-season.