How should we celebrate Christmas in tough times? Maybe the way we should have been celebrating the birth of Christ all along. All religious traditions call us to be generous and care for the poor and needy.
“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
To see that saying framed and embroidered you have to watch It’s a Wonderful Life very often and closely. Capra’s camera focuses in on the saying, which appears under the picture of Peter Bailey, as George and Uncle Billy discuss how to confront the run on the bank. George and Mary put up their honeymoon money to keep the “old, broken down” Bailey Building and Loan afloat, and out of the hands of miserly Mr. Potter, “the richest man in town.”
We will all be watching that Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed classic with new eyes and new awareness this Christmas. The millions of homeowners stressed and stretched by the mortgage loan debacle, and the many millions more seriously impacted by Wall Street’s meltdown will think of George Bailey with admiration and gratitude. His struggle to do business while keeping the needs of the little people in mind elicits a renewed appreciation and respect. The “Greed is Good” era of Gordon Gekko is dead. Long live the George Baileys of the world. Hopefully, some are still left out there.
The Christmas Envelope story
In 1982, Nancy Gavin published a short reflection on how her family celebrated Christmas. Google “Christmas Envelope story” and multiple websites provide the full version of this moving story.
Mike Gavin didn’t like Christmas much, and dreaded the commercialization and hype. One year, the Gavin’s son competed in a wrestling match against kids from an inner city church on the poor side of town. Mike was frustrated to see the opposing team very ill equipped. Moved by their plight, he expressed his anger and frustration to his wife over the fact that the kids could lose heart: “These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes.” Instead of getting Mike the usual soon forgotten present, Nancy anonymously sent new wrestling equipment for those little boys. On Christmas Eve, a small white envelope with Mike’s name on it appeared on the Gavin family tree. Mike opened the envelope and learned what his wife had given in lieu of his gift. Nancy writes, “His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years.” The small white envelope became a tradition in the Gavin household, and the whole family eagerly anticipated what Mom “got” Dad each year.
Mike eventually died of cancer, taking with him all that his wife had given away.
The Christmas after his passing was hard. “When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree,” Nancy recalled. Imagine her joy and delight when she walked downstairs in the morning and saw her envelope was joined by three more on the tree. “Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad.”
The Gavin family teaches us how to celebrate Christmas, in good times and in bad.
In the USA, we have two shopping centers (46,438) for every high school (22,180). Our CEOs get 475 times what workers make. Richard Fuld, Lehman Brothers’ chief, took home almost half a billion dollars between 1993 and 2007. He earned $17,000 an hour as he drove the company into the ground. Seventy percent of Americans go to a mall weekly, many more than attend church. Previously, we have spent $200 billion a year on Christmas gifts, $850 dollars per person ($850 per person?! I’ve got to get better friends…).
For the most part, the affluence we enjoy is not making us truly happier. We work 160 hours more per year than we did in 1969. We suffer from stress and depression at alarming rates. When Mother Teresa visited the United States, she mourned it as the poorest place she’d ever seen. True happiness and real wealth consist in what we give, not what we get.
Remember the words of Luke, spoken by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas : ” There were shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold an angel of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. And you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ … That’s the real meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.”
“Do not be afraid” is the most often repeated phrase in the bible. Let us, like the Magi, bravely follow the star and present the child with our gifts this year. On Christmas contemplate the child, born baby bald and lying in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. That child is among us as the homeless and the hungry, the lost and the last, the lonely and the least. Find a way to give someone less well off than yourself something they need. That is the gift you will take with you. That is the gift you are.