The most powerful gifts are wrapped in selflessness
Every act of giving changes the world for the better - without them SA would be much poorer
Christmas has many meanings but at its core is the idea of the gift. Growing up in a working-class community that gift was always simple, practical and inexpensive. A pair of socks one year or a pen and pencil set the next.
“It’s the thought that counts,” a defensive aunt would say as she handed out one of those “two for the price of one” handkerchief specials at the local store.
Since my dad was born on December 25, I once wrapped up one sock as his Christmas gift and the other as his birthday gift; he was partly amused. True, as a little boy I used to envy children who got those huge racing tracks with speeding cars or a bright-red bicycle under the Christmas tree. Looking back, however, I learnt some precious lessons about gifting in my parent’s council home.
To begin with, the idea of the gift is a powerful one. It enables us to bless others and in that singular act we take ourselves beyond self-indulgence. But not all giving is the same. When you only give within your family the gift is limited. When you give in a closed circle where the expectation is to receive, that kind of gifting is hardly sacrificial. When you give with the receipt inside the box and the cultural expectation is that you can take the gift back to the store as an exchange, then the act of giving is quite meaningless. When, to the recipient, the commercial value of the gift signals its worth then what is the point?
So here are the key lessons I have learnt about gifting growing up. That it is indeed better to give than to receive. Give without the expectation to receive. Give to those who cannot give back. Give anonymously where you can. Give not out of your abundance but give when you have little to give away. Give things you value – not things you have too much of or things you do not need. Give to teach, which means you should make visible your giving to your children so that they too learn the value of giving. Give often, as a habit. Give where it makes a real difference in the lives of the recipients. Give against the grain of social expectation (the best Christmas gifts I received where from my Muslim friends). Give of yourself rather than only things.
So this year I decided to do something different. I will go to a popular clothing store that offers lay-by options for customers. Then I will ask the manager to identify all those lay-bys where parents have set aside small amounts of money for school clothes such as white shirts, black shoes and book bags for the 2019 academic year. I will then pay off the balance on as many of those purchases as possible and tell the store to contact the parents to tell them that they can collect their children’s school items.
I am writing this to invite you to do the same with your local store – what a difference we can make simply by making lighter the financial burden on a household in these tough economic times.
Yet the most powerful gifts at this time of the year are not necessary presents. Presence, I read somewhere, is the most important present an absent parent can give a child. Physical gifts cannot make up for broken hearts in a loveless family environment where one or both parents are invisible in the life of a child growing up. Spending quality time with a child is priceless and much more desirable than expensive gifts.
Which raises the question: Why give? Beyond the personal energy and fulfilment that comes to the giver, every act of giving changes the world for the better. A hard heart softens with an unexpected gift. A barrier falls when you give to someone or some group of a different racial or religious community. A financial hardship is made a little easier with the relief that a gift affords. A hot meal served to the homeless at a local church gives that person a reason to continue on for another day.
Unlike a government grant, a gift is not an obligation. And yet without this vast network of voluntary giving by organised philanthropy on the one hand, and by large-hearted individuals on the other hand, our country would be poorer, our relationships even more strained, and all of us less hopeful about the future.
Happy holidays, everyone.