Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Trina James,12, hugs her new yarn that she is going to use to knit hats for her sister and grandmother at Lincoln Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. Without gifts from the Salt Lake Community and Utah Central Credit Union, many Lincoln Elementary School children would not have Christmas.
The old maxim "'tis better to give than to receive" is true, but it's easy to lose focus on why we give as we compete for parking and scour the stores for the one last moth-corruptible thing no one seems to carry.

An original copy of the Sears catalog from 1939 crossed my desk this week. Other than the jokes it allowed me to tell (Finally! I ordered that thing 72 years ago!), it let me engage in an interesting pastime.

As with other old catalogs or newspapers I've run across in the past, I like to imagine myself living at that time with the salary I have today, not accounting for inflation, of course (what would be the fun in that?). It's a game that offers some relevant lessons for Christmas Day.

The catalog is filled with things people gladly would accept today, if only to unload them for a tidy sum to a collector on eBay. The Silvertone Imperial Grand radio on page 738 looks like a wonderful piece of furniture — all 91 pounds of it — and for only $74.95.

But if you decide to play, the rules of this game are that you can't go back and haul antiques into the present. You can imagine living like a king, but you have to be a king according to 1939 standards.

That changes the definition of "wealth" rather quickly. That cool radio you're eyeing has no port for plugging in your mp3 player, which hasn't been invented yet. And the catalog is void of anything resembling a television or a Blu-ray player.

In addition, you might, if you are female, find yourself warily eyeing the girdle section. And if you are male, the illustrations of "union suit" undergarments may have you thinking twice about the good old days. Of course, you could look forward to washing those garments in a gasoline-powered "Waterwitch," with attached wringer.

The point of this exercise is to place some perspective on the value of material possessions, which helps put Christmas Day in perspective.

A woman in California made the news on Black Friday for firing pepper spray at fellow shoppers so she could secure an Xbox. She might have been diagnosed as not only criminal, but insane, if she had fired away in a thrift store to secure an old "Pong" game for her TV. Yet, with the passage of time, her Xbox will have all the appeal of that game, or of a high fidelity phonograph player from 1939, with a $29.95 price tag that translates to roughly $490 in today's world.

Christmas is a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, whose ministry was focused on getting people to pry their minds from worldly pleasures and to instead "lay up … treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal."

The gift-giving tradition helps make Christmas exciting in many ways, and yet in the time it has taken to write this, my inbox has filled with frantic unsolicited emails whose subject lines shout about last-minute ideas, "25 percent off" and "guaranteed Christmas delivery!"

The old maxim " 'tis better to give than to receive" is true, but it's easy to lose focus on why we give as we compete for parking and scour the stores for the one last moth-corruptible thing no one seems to carry.

The good news this year is that many people have figured this out. So-called "layaway angels" have appeared in many stores during the season, paying the bills of strangers.

The Associated Press reported on one young father who stood with his three children at a layaway counter when a woman he had never met approached and paid his entire bill. He could do little more than shed tears of gratitude.

Stories such as this have inspired copycats in cities from coast to coast. Meanwhile, a report last week on world giving, published by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation, found that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth. Even more encouraging was the finding that more people volunteered and helped strangers worldwide this year than last.

A better game of imagination, then, would be to think of how many people you could help in 1939 with today's salary. Even better would be to actually help whomever you can in the present, with or without money, on Christmas and always.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at [email protected]. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.