Why Christmas is so special
Regular columnist James Knight reminisces on his childhood Christmases, and explains why Christmas is such a special time for him.
We all know that the giving of Christmas cards and gifts is socially beneficial, but equally we all know of the times it isn't too.
Two sociologists put this to the test: Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott posted over five hundred Christmas cards to random people. With some they used expensive materials and with some they went cheaper, but each expensive card was signed “Dr and Mrs Phillip Kunz”, and each cheaper card was signed “Phillip and Joyce Kunz”. Kunz and Woolcott found that despite not knowing any of the recipients, over one hundred of them felt obliged to engage in reciprocity and send a card back. Incidentally, as you've probably guessed, the higher reply rates were in response to the more expensive cards signed "Dr and Mrs Phillip Kunz".
It's not surprising, then, that this trend affects gift-buying too. According to a study I read, the average recipient of a gift values it at 10% less than the market price, and around one quarter of gifts received each year are said to be unwanted. This is because your aunts, uncles, cousins and so forth have sub-optimal knowledge about your desires and preferences. In other words, they know a bit about what you might like or need, but not as much as you do. As we know from all the government waste, when people spend money on your behalf they do it less efficiently than when we spend it ourselves.
When it comes to Jesus, a lot of people find the opposite situation is occurring; we live our lives less efficiently than Jesus wants us to, because unlike present buyers, He actually knows our wants better than we do. If Christmas gift-buying was only about efficiency of economic resources then we’d all simply give each other cash. But the main enchantment of gift-buying is in bringing pleasure to someone’s life by showing them you understand what they might like and care about what they need.
Often the best gifts of all are the surprises, where someone has chosen something for you that you love but didn’t even know you wanted. This, to me, is exactly what Jesus did for me about 13 Christmases ago – He gave me the gift of a relationship with Him – one I love, but didn’t even know I wanted – and it’s a gift He offers to everyone else too.
Here’s a true story: I remember being told about Santa Claus as a young boy. Apparently, according to my parents, he visits every house in the country on Christmas Eve night and leaves us presents for the morning, whilst presumably feeling quite full from eating all the mince pies, and quite inebriated from drinking the all the refreshments he's been left.
The year before, Santa had arrived in the night, left me some presents, and consumed the mince pie and brandy that my father had left for him. So I decided to enquire as to how Santa got round all those millions of homes in just a few hours. I pointed out that even if he had a full 10 hours, and could deliver at the extraordinarily rapid rate of one house every second, he would only get round 36,000 houses. “What about all the rest?” I asked, “How will he fit them in before Christmas morning?”
It wasn't the kind of question my parents hoped I’d ask, nor one which they were ready to answer. So I decided the only recourse was to see for myself, and hide in our stairway cupboard and wait for Santa. I detected even more anxiety from my parents now, particularly as it turned out that the main surprise present they had bought for me was hidden in the very same stairway cupboard. Aha, thought my dad, I know what I’ll do; I'll scare him to bed by telling him that Santa will only come if I've been a good boy. “What does it mean to be good, though?” I asked. “What's worse, someone who is generally good but occasionally does a few really bad things, or someone who is generally bad but occasionally does a few really good things?” "Come on now, bed time son" he replied.
The question 'what is good?' is just as profound now as it was then, but it’s easy to see today why back then my father had difficulty satisfying my curiosity. The truth is, goodness in its primary form only resides in the person of God; all earthly goodness, wonderful in itself, is but a pale reflection of Divinity. And this is what I think we see in the meaning of Christmas. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, and we share in those celebrations with our family and friends by trying to bring goodness, happiness and love into their lives.
I fancy that Christmas is so widely seen as the most special time of the year because it’s the time when we become more Christ-like in our goodwill to others, and in our desire to bless those we love.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
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