Give from the Heart: Be Inspired This Season
Dec 01, 2008 07:10PM
By Frances Lefkowitz
Presents allow us to express our love and gratitude. Why, then, do we get so stressed out over them, and how can we bring sense and significance back to the season?
Though many complain about the commercialism of the holiday season, no one—not even the two-sizes-too-small-hearted Grinch—would wish to get rid of presents.
At its core, the exchange of gifts is a joyous ritual. Those robes, orchids and batches of oatmeal cookies we bestow every year let us acknowledge important relationships and strengthen bonds with friends, family and our community. “To give a gift to someone is to say, ‘I am connected to you, and I know you well enough to know what you like,’” advises M.J. Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude.
Faced with a holiday season that’s too often fraught with chaos, stress, waste and debt, it’s easy to lose track of the pleasure and meaning of giving. But, by remembering what lies at the heart of this singular season and looking afresh at our impulses to give and receive, we can make these days feel more like the spiritual celebrations they were meant to be.
Look for the meaning
One way to bring meaning back to the holidays is to remember that they are holy days. “Welcome in the spirit of whatever you’re celebrating, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah or the solstice,” says Barbara Biziou, author of The Joys of Everyday Ritual and The Joy of Family Rituals. Biziou advocates reviving the family’s traditional ways of celebrating or creating new rituals, such as making ornaments together or cooking a meal for a neighbor or stranger, if the old ones no longer feel meaningful. Instead of obsessing about presents, we can spend this season connecting with people through the sharing of food, warmth and hospitality.
Ryan has found a way to make sure that everyone around her table remembers the holiday’s true meaning: At her dinner, each person takes a turn listening, as the others tell what they appreciate about her or him.
One way to bring meaning back to the holidays is to remember that they are holy days.
“When we feel gratitude for what we have received, we have an experience of fullness,” comments Ryan. “From that fullness, you naturally want to give back. This is true generosity, not obligatory giving. It’s the natural process of recognizing what we have, and then sharing it.”
The good gift
Great pleasure is found in giving—or receiving—just the right gift. Last Christmas, for example, Ryan’s husband gave her a box of 12 envelopes, one for each month; inside each envelope was a picture of one of her favorite flowers that she could then trade in for an actual bouquet. This was a successful present, she explains, because it demonstrated how well her husband knew her—plus, it lasted all year long.
Ultimately, the best gifts are the ones given from the heart, gifts that infuse these rituals with feelings and values. They’re the ones that bring joy to the recipient and the giver—joy to the world. Even the Grinch realized this, right before his heart grew three sizes: “’Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.’”
Who could argue with Dr. Seuss?
Frances Lefkowitz is an award-winning writer, editor and reviewer whose work is widely published via print and subscription radio.
In early agricultural societies, where survival depended upon the cycles of nature, people developed rituals to acknowledge the winter solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year, as it gives way to lighter and longer days. The winter solstice falls around December 21.
The Zoroastrians celebrated the solstice as the birthday of the Sun; early Scandinavians paid tribute to their Yule time, burning logs for light and warmth; and Celtic Druids hung green holly to make way for spring. The Romans combined many pagan solstice celebrations into one holiday, Dies Naralis Invicti Solis (birthday of the unconquered Sun), held on December 25. Eventually, modern religions merged these celebrations with their own; it’s no coincidence that the dates correspond to the seasonal events that guided the ancients.
An appreciation of nature is essential to recovering meaning in whatever holidays we observe, says Barbara Biziou, author of The Joys of Everyday Ritual. We need to make time to notice the lengthening nights, changes in the landscape and gradual return of the light. As we decorate our evergreens and hang holly and mistletoe, we can cherish them all as long-held symbols of hope and endurance.
In the natural world, winter is a slow, quiet period. Biziou approaches this season as “a stopping time,” when she can pause, reflect back, and meditate on what the coming year offers.
In this way, she notes, we’re better able to “welcome in the spirit” of our particular festivities and shift our focus away from material objects. “These holidays really had nothing to do with gift-giving,” says Biziou. “Gifts are a modern addition and were originally meant just for children.”