Everyday Theology: Charity at Christmas has a long history

"Giving Tuesday can serve as a reminder that the Christmas season is not just about shopping for the best deals."

For the last couple of weeks, my inbox has been cluttered with emails designed to entice me to spend, and despite repeatedly hitting ‘delete’, the pressure from retailers to shop has been relentless.  Could Cyber Monday really, truly be my last opportunity to save until Boxing Day?  Surely, there must be another shopping bonanza that follows Cyber Monday but comes before Boxing Day.  I googled to find out, and discovered that something called Giving Tuesday follows Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday began in 2012 as a response to the consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. According to the Giving Tuesday website, it is a “global day dedicated to giving back”, and everyone can take part, “Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more.”

There is really nothing new about practicing charity in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The idea goes back millennia, and may have had its origins with the magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus.  The magi believed that they were in the presence of a king, despite the unassuming and humble circumstances of his family and his home. The men honored the little prince with expensive gifts.

Fast forward to the 10th century in medieval Europe.  As the Duke of Bohemia, more famously known as Good King Wenceslas, was surveying his lands on the day after Christmas, he encountered an improvished peasant. Moved with pity, the duke returned to his estate, got the leftovers from his Christmas feast, and trudged through a storm to deliver food and drink to the peasant. While the story may be more legend than fact, Wenceslas did have a reputation for generosity and almsgiving.  Some historians think that Boxing Day, which was traditionally a day for charity, originated with Wenceslas.

There are two traditions from English history worth mentioning in the context of Christmas charity. They, too, are associated with Boxing Day, which today is a consumer holiday and has nothing to do with charitable giving.

In the Middle Ages during the liturgical season of Advent, the Church of England placed boxes in its churches to collect offerings for the poor. On December 26, the boxes were opened and the monies were distributed to the poor of the parishes. December 26 was also the day that the British aristocracy gave gifts, in boxes, to their servants.

In the Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens exposed the selfish greed of the affluent that ignored the poor at Christmas. Through the transformation of Scrooge from a bitter, greedy miser to a warm-hearted philanthropist, Dickens imprinted on our collective imagination the role of charity in healing spiritual poverty, as well as alleviating the ills of physical poverty.

Charity at Christmas is a long established tradition. While I am unconvinced that we need a specific day dedicated to giving, Giving Tuesday can serve as a reminder that the Christmas season is not just about shopping for the best deals; it is also about recognizing and honoring the princely dignity that resides within every individual.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan’s blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com .

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