‘Pleasure at another’s enjoyment of a present can shade into self-congratulation’, writes Ben Conroy
One Christmastime, fadó fadó, I remember asking my parents why it was that that adults didn’t get as many presents as kids did. I’d observed that this was part of a general trend – grown-ups didn’t make such a big deal over all their birthdays, and they seemed to spend a not insubstantial portion of their time making nice things happen for other people.
My parents told me that, yes, as one got older, one tended to get less presents, and spent more time organising Christmas-related festivities, rather than just benefiting from them: but they said that this wasn’t a bad thing. The giving was, in some ways, its own reward.
I was, to put it mildly, sceptical. This sounded suspiciously to me like Jesus saying “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, which, as far as I was concerned, was one of those sayings that everyone smugly quoted but nobody sane actually believed.
Later, I thought Jesus’ words made more sense, but the idea that giving could be more rewarding than receiving still seemed far-fetched. Better morally perhaps, but not actually more fun.
But as more and more Christmases go by, I realise more and more that my parents were right and I was wrong. (On this one particular issue, terms and conditions apply.)
If Christianity’s picture of the world is true, then the world and the things in it are good: they are meant to be enjoyed and appreciated and, what’s more, they are meant to be appreciated with others, to be shared.
Introducing friends to BBC’s Sherlock, my girlfriend to Firefly or my parents to Avatar: The Last Airbender, let me look at those TV shows I loved through different eyes. When my dad read the Harry Potter books aloud to my younger brother (both of their first times experiencing the story), watching them meet characters and encounter plot twists was a joy. Picking gifts that you know a friend or loved one will enjoy is similarly resounding.
But isn’t this just a consumerism-flavoured version of pride? If you’re getting enjoyment out of someone else getting a gift, doesn’t that make it about you rather than them?
Pleasure at another’s enjoyment of a present can shade into self-congratulation (“How marvellous I am for giving this gift!”), but there’s another kind of self-congratulation that I think is a more common danger.
We can end up thinking that giving of ourselves is better, more worthy somehow if it’s difficult. We can do our giving grimly, congratulating ourselves on the fact that we always put our own interests last.
This is a mistake: what we should aim for in the long run is to love giving.
As CS Lewis put it: “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.”
Generosity can be difficult enough as it is: we don’t need to impose a mandate on ourselves that it become a detached, joyless thing.
To take delight in another’s enjoyment of a gift is not selfish – it’s the Christmas spirit.
Gift-giving needn’t always be about material things either. The cliché that the greatest gift you can give is time has a lot of truth to it, and some of my best Christmas memories have been of the times when the scramble stopped.
Going for a walk through a Christmas market with the family, sitting by the fire drinking hot chocolate and chatting – this is giving, as is taking the time to do something concrete for those who don’t have a fire to sit by or a family to walk with.
Again, it’s about the attitude you take: you could call a friend you haven’t spoken to for ages as an obligation and resent every minute of it, or you could do it because you love and value the person.
These often don’t feel any different in the moment, but that’s OK. Loving the good takes practice.
But the more I’ve practised, the more I’ve come to appreciate what my parents told me about this most glorious season. When you find joy in the joy of others, to give really is better than to receive: you’re no longer just enjoying Christmas for yourself, you’re enjoying it for everyone.