(This blog is taken from a recent assembly given in Chapel by Mrs Harrison, Deputy Head). I am sure that most of you are aware that yesterday was Advent Sunday and therefore the official start to the Christmas countdown. We enthusiastically went to get our tree and it is now fully, if not tastefully, decorated in our sitting room. However, there have been Christmas displays in shops for weeks and no doubt you have been putting together a Christmas list for even longer than that. Far better people than me have argued for many years that Christmas has become too commercialised but I do want you to ponder for a few minutes on the topic of Christmas presents.
When you were younger, you probably wrote a letter to Father Christmas or Santa Claus telling him what you would like for Christmas. Although you may no longer do that, you probably have a list of what you would like people to get you. If you have a list of what you would like to receive, do you have a similar list of what you would like to give people? What is more important? Every year, there are certain members of my family who tell me what I need to buy them and then I am required to tell them what they should buy me. The whole process seems fairly pointless to me. Why don’t I just buy what I want and they buy what they want and we save the postage? Apparently that is against the spirit of the thing but I think the spirit had been lost before that point. There should be a joy involved in thinking about what to buy family and friends, thought should go into deciding what they would like or need. Isn’t that as good as the present? Showing someone that you care enough to spend the time and effort thinking of them and what they would like.
I realise some of you sitting here will be thinking but how will they know I want the jumper from Superdry? What if they buy me something from M&S instead? Or worse still granny knits it herself! I would never wear it. What is more important the action of buying the gift or the gift itself? Put the boot on the other foot, what does it feel like to see something you have bought someone, discarded? All the time, energy and thought you have put into it, seemingly valued as being worthless.
Giving someone a gift, really giving someone a gift, does involve a risk and too often we are not brave enough to take this risk because of that fear of rejection. Giving should also be selfless because if it isn’t then you aren’t giving a gift, you are bartering goods: you give me an iPod and I’ll give you a Kindle and we’re quits. As Sheldon, a character from one of my favourite TV shows – The Big Bang Theory – puts it:
You bought me a present? Why would you do such a thing? I know you think you’re being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me. Ah, it’s no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year. Oh, I brought this on myself by being such an endearing and important part of your life…
Do you give gifts expecting things in return? Or thinking about the monetary value of the gift you might receive in return?
Giving (without expecting anything in return) actually makes us happy! A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues found that giving money to someone lifted participants’ happiness more that spending it on themselves (despite participants’ prediction that spending on themselves would make them happier). Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, saw similar results when she asked people to perform five acts of kindness each week for six weeks. And in a 2006 study, the National Institute of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect. Scientists also believe that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the ‘helper’s high’. At the most basic level, magnetic resonance imaging evidence shows that giving money to charity leads to similar brain activity in regions implicated in the experience of pleasure and reward.
Also, believe it or not, studies have shown that giving makes us healthier too. Stephen Post, a professor of Preventative Medicine at Stony Brook University, reports that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.
A 1999 study led by Doug Oman of the University of California, Berkeley, found that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organisations were 44 % less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers, even after taking into account their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits, like smoking. Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan saw similar results in a 2003 study on elderly couples. Interestingly, receiving help wasn’t linked to a reduced death risk. It’s giving that does the trick!
Remembering the Nativity story as we do at this time of year, the greatest gift Mary and Joseph were given was shelter, in a stable – nothing plush or state of the art. I don’t think any of us are likely to encounter a pregnant woman on a donkey looking for somewhere to stay over the next few weeks but there are many people in this country and all over the world who are in need. The children that receive the Christmas shoe boxes packed by St P’s and others will not be worried about what is in them as much as grateful that someone far away is thinking of them and knowing that they are not forgotten. They will appreciate the act of the giver.
At Christmas, Christians remember that God gave the world a true gift – Jesus. He was treated a bit like that unwanted granny-knitted jumper with ridicule, disdain and rejection. Not a good way to respond to any gift.
So this Christmas think about what you are going to give, rather than focusing on what you are going to get. And also, this year, look beyond the gift in the wrapping paper to the act of love or friendship behind it and value what is most important – the act of being given something. Remember the person behind the gift and the fact that you are important enough to them to warrant their time, effort (and money) regardless of what they have actually given you.