Guiltaxosity! A brief history of Christmas giving

On Twitter yesterday, @npmarc asked why year-end giving is such a big deal in a chicken/egg scenario: is it on donor’s terms, or do we create this environment by asking. The response was great, and can be summed up in a few brief ideas:

1) Urgency – tax deadlines!

2) “The spirit of the season” – the warm fuzziness of giving during the holidays.

3) Guilt – coulda woulda shoulda all year long, so now I gotta.

4) I was asked – this is when most charities are asking.

But I had another suggestion, one that is deeply embedded in our societal roots: a Western culture based on a re-imagined Christian habit. I wanted to dig a little deeper into this thought, and who better than me, the agnostic girl with the Medieval literature/religious studies degree, to do it!

Christmas Beginnings

We all know the story – baby born to poor parents in a stable turns out to be Messiah, three dudes bring him gifts, baby grows up to teach all kinds of lessons about how to care for each other (I realize I’m over-simplifying here.) Debates over the actual date finally found a popular victor: December 25. I shan’t get into arguments of whether or not this is factual, because we also must recognize that fact and historical significance aren’t always mutually inclusive.

Pre-Christmas, of course, there were many pagan celebrations, customs of which were adopted – such as “merry making” (ancient holiday keg stands) and “gift giving” (can actually be traced to human sacrifice.)

St. Nicholas, a Greek Bishop, lived during the 4th century and is our prototype for Santa. He notoriously gave to the poor, though his original connection with kindness to children stems from a story that he saved 3 boys who were going to be killed by an evil butcher who was luring children and curing their flesh to be sold as ham (yikes.)

In the Middle Ages, there was a shift in focus to the journey of the Magi, extending the Christmas season to begin with Epiphany, and in the 12th century we see The Twelve Holy Days of Christmas emerge. During this period, a heavy focus on the “merry making” (wild and luxurious parties, mega feasts, Christmas ale, and grandiose symbolism.)

In the Reformation, we see a heavy backlash against this (and all “Popish”) indulgent behaviour. Protestants actually rallied to have Christmas banned, and it was in England in 1647. At this time, Catholics shifted their focus from exuberant merriment to a far more religious focused event. In America, Christmas fell out of favour, and was banned in some places. It was seen as an English custom, and in the Revolution was despised as all things English were.

Then came a fellow named Charles Dickens, whose novel A Christmas Carol sought to reinvent Christmas. Dickens was a passionate advocate for the poor and had a nostalgic longing to bring back old Christmas traditions. This novel essentially reinvented Christmas, first in Britain and then in the States. Writers like Longfellow claimed that old Puritan feelings were preventing it from being “a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” In 1870, Christmas was declared a Federal holiday in the states.

Many historical sources reported a burst of charitable giving with the book’s reception – Dickens himself said the book was less about Christmas and more about empathy for the poor. In an industrial age of rich-getting-richer (hmmm, sounds familiar?), the image of Scrooge as a reforming and repentant figure struck deep in the hearts of rich and less rich alike. Dickens’ marriage of both these classic ideas – Christmas the merry-making time and the idea of a giving Jesus “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see” was the perfect combination that purportedly reinvented the Christmas we know today.

So there you have it, folks. Stressed from planning your holiday appeal? Blame the ghost of Christmas past himself, Mr. Charles Dickens! God bless us, everyone!