As the nation turns the corner from Thanksgiving, looks back on “black Friday” and runs headlong into the Christmas season, it is important to note that the Biblical description of the first gift-givers of this season, the Magi from the East, does not say they purchased the gold, frankincense and myrrh on an installment plan.
Somehow, the purchase of gifts, once reserved primarily, if not exclusively, as something intended for children, has become the center of a holiday intended to celebrate the birth of the Christ child and his selfless gift to the world.
And while gift-giving itself is not improper or obscene, the way in which some people borrow money out of a sense of obligation is.
Fortunately, there is some good news on that front. Americans no longer charge as much as they did before the Great Recession of 2008. The aggregate outstanding credit card debt has dropped about $200 billion below that year’s level of $850 billion.
The American Research Group Inc., estimates people will spend less this year than last. This is the 29th year the group has surveyed shoppers at the beginning of the season. It found that people plan to spend, on average, $801 for gifts. That is lower than last year but considerably higher than the $417 they planned to spend in 2009.
Much could be said about what this indicates about the relative strength of the economy and how it might translate into profit ledgers for retailers and manufacturers. But the more time people spend counting and reckoning this way, the more they miss the point.
Christmas spending can be quantified, but the Christmas spirit cannot, nor can it be bought. The amount a family spends, so long as it is in line with available resources, means less than the quality of a family’s observance. If Christ is the center of Christmas, priorities will follow. People will want to reach outward in ways television commercials never can capture.
One of the most encouraging trends in recent years has been the emergence of so-called “layaway angels.” These are anonymous people who visit retailers and secretly pay off the layaway balances of total strangers. Last year, a store in California reported that one donor alone paid the balances on 32 such accounts, totaling $2,700. The store manager told USA Today that those who do this “are just happy to make somebody’s Christmas great.”
The best part of this trend is being able to read about the people who benefit. One woman in Massachusetts had been forced to cancel her layaway account for a bicycle for her daughter. An “angel” allowed the store to call this woman to say she could come pick up the bike.
The Lewiston-Auburn Journal in Maine reported on one woman who was on her way to the store when a clerk called. She thought to herself that she needed to hurry because she was late with her payment and the store might want to close her account. But no, the clerk was calling to tell her the account had been paid in full.
Often, tears are shed. Recipients vow to do something kind for someone else as a demonstration of gratitude. The donors almost always insist on remaining anonymous.
Others find different ways to donate money or time to those who otherwise would be suffering during Christmas. Still others prepare homemade gifts that end up meaning much more to a loved one than anything store-bought.
The season, after all, is meant to celebrate one who gave gifts that cannot be purchased with money. The best way to honor his birth is to follow his example.