The Nicholas Factor
It is Christmas time once again. It is the season of rejoicing; of giving and receiving; of raising our hands in Thanksgiving. My earliest recollections of Christmas festivities are associated with the socks which, we as children (even in Hindu homes), would hang up somewhere (not by the fireside, as there would be none) on Christmas Eve for Father Christmas to fill up. We were always rewarded with sweets or a story book, or something similar, which was sometimes found tucked under our pillows next morning, if it did not fit inside our small socks. But then, we had small desires and these simple gifts made us immensely happy.
It was only much later that I learnt that this custom of hanging up a Christmas stocking originated from the story of Bishop Nicholas on whom the Father Christmas legend is based. The story tells how a local nobleman had lost his fortune and was sadly unable to provide dowries for his three unmarried daughters. St. Nicholas decided to help in secret. He waited until it was night and crept through the chimney. He had three purses of gold coins with him. As he was looking for a place to keep this gift, he noticed the stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying, and so put one purse in each stocking. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
Another remembrance is of the scene of Nativity, which is still enacted in many missionary schools/churches. That also had a gift component of the three wise men bringing presents of myrrh and incense for the infant Jesus. But it seems that now the humble manger, with the infant Jesus swathed in rags, is almost forgotten. And so are the humble stockings.
We, the modern day parents, sow the seeds of ambition in our children right from infancy. We teach them to think big and act smart in order to become rich and powerful. So their wish list does not fit in a stocking, and really stretches the purse strings of Santa. The more expensive and exclusive the gift, the higher is their happiness quotient. Need has now been overshadowed with greed. It is not only the children, but even we adults have such skewed up notions about giving and receiving. The other day I was invited to the 1st birthday party of an acquaintance’s grandchild. All of us invitees were trying to outdo the other, carrying loads of gifts for a kid who was literally born with a silver (nay gold) spoon. To my surprise I found that most of the guests, at this supposedly kids’ party, were either business friends or high government officials. Even in such a high profile setting, differential treatment to the guests (depending upon their profit value) was more than obvious. One trio of father, mother and daughter was being particularly pampered by the host. The catering waiters were instructed to take special care of this special guest, who turned out to be some bigwig from the income tax department. Liquor was flowing openly for the men folk (and rather discreetly for the women). The soulful renditions of the hired ghazal singer were drowned in the din of noises. This did not look to me like a children’s party from any angle. It was pathetically amusing that neither the ambience, nor the few kids present there, gave it the feel of someone’s 1st birthday party. But then, perhaps I was being just too stupid and naive. Someone wisely whispered in my ears that such parties are held to enhance the business prospects of the host family—birthdays are just an acceptable excuse. The giving of gifts and partaking of the hosts’ generosity are actually part of the profit generating business strategies, and also an opportunity to show off one’s opulence and social status.
It is a sad commentary on our morality that the noble gesture of giving and receiving is now dictated by social and financial obligations to further our monetary interests. The size and cost of our gift is not dependent upon the needs of the receiver. It depends upon what we hope to gain (other than gratitude) from giving it. The worth of our presents is almost invariably inversely proportional to the economic status of the recipient. Why else do we give cheaper gifts to those who are below our own social/economic status?
If only, our giving could be gentle as silence (as goes one of the hymns I learnt in childhood), and if it keeps in mind the needs of the receiver (and not the greed of the giver), then we will be really blessed. Only if we could inculcate the magnanimous modesty of Saint Nicholas while filling up empty stockings!
The birth of Christ is an event which teaches humanity the lessons of austerity and humility. It teaches us to respect the poorest of the poor and to accept the graces, as well as tribulations of life with equanimity. Let us not forget the real meaning of Christmas, which is of forgiveness and humility. Let us give with humility and receive with grace whatever is offered to us—not only by way of Christmas gifts, but in every sphere of our lives. Let us also not shower money on our children, but teach them to be humble and respectful, and imbibe in them a love for humanity. If we share our bounties with the indigent, our wealth is bound to multiply.
At this time of the Yuletide season let our faith be reaffirmed in the goodness of humankind, so that God is in Her place in heaven and all is right with the world.
May peace and goodwill always prevail on the earth.
Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI).She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)