Christmas Giving (written 2014)
When I was a child, growing up in pretty traditional home, Christmas was a time of magic. It meant good things to eat, Santa Claus, and time with cousins and extended family that I saw too little of over the year. It meant decorations and sparkles and snow. But it also meant the story of the baby Jesus. Sometimes we went to a special service at our church. And always both my mom and dad sang a lot as they worked. So the story of Christmas was mixed with melody for me: “Silent Night”, “Away in the Manger”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”.
What do I make of Christmas these days? We still put up our traditional tree, though I think of it as our “enlightenment tree”, cross-pollinating traditions. One of my sons has played piano in the Christmas Eve service of a local church for several years now, so the rest of us go to that service and enjoy the message, the music, the candles and the fellowship. And throughout the season traditional Christmas music is very much present. Playing on the stereo. Being hummed as I bake. Or at the concerts and gatherings we attend.
The story of Christmas is a beautiful and inspiring one. The message of Jesus is a beautiful and inspiring one. Love others as yourself. Christmas carries a message of peace and joy and generosity.
The Buddha, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, taught such things in his own words and ways. One of the most beautiful of these teachings is the Metta Sutta or Discourse on Loving Kindness. A part of this lengthy teaching that I love dearly goes like this:
“Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child,
So should one with a boundless heart cherish all living beings,
Radiating loving kindness over all the earth,
Upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded.”
So Christmas for me means that there is still a time officially marked in the year when we are reminded, more frequently than in the regular course of our days, to think of others. The inescapable nature of the calendar means that even a Scrooge has to give this a passing thought. How we mark this is a matter of individual choice: gifts to family and friends, to people who have been part of our lives over the previous year; donations to food banks and soup kitchens; funds to non-profits aiming to help those in third world countries, those in dire circumstances of one kind or another. And, perhaps, we'll remember that giving extends beyond the material to listening, caring for, taking time and making effort. For a moment, the buzz of “acquiring” may be balanced with the more gentle hum of “generosity”.
Our affluent society has made it more difficult to hear that hum. The message of love has been sublimated by the call to buy, supporting the illusion that “things” will bring happiness. So it is also not a surprise to me to read statistics that mention Christmas as a time of deep depression for many people. Our imaginings outstrip reality. And even the reality lasts only a brief time. The turkey is eaten, the gifts opened, the fire goes out, the guests go home, the laughter ends. A regular ho hum Monday morning comes again. Christmas, like a holiday in the tropics, doesn't fix our problems. And we may be tempted to treat this special time as merely an escape. A respite. A dream. Then it's over.
The practice of mindfulness has the potential to turn this around. When we really look at our experience, when we don't turn away, we know that material things, even the company of those we hold dear, cannot guarantee a lasting peace and happiness.
For me, happiness arrives when I do. When I let myself arrive here and now, I find I was holding it all the time in my heart. When I quit longing and give up regret, when I feel my breath and remember the gift of life. When I look around and remember that each and every being is like this. Struggling to be happy. Sometimes skillfully, sometimes not. When I forgive myself and others for the mistakes we make. Then I remember that no matter what the advertisements may say to the contrary, loving kindness is the gift we give ourselves and a gift suitable for everyone on our Christmas list.