My twelve year-old son and I were talking the other day on our ride home from school about Santa Claus. What he represents, and how it’s possible to believe in Santa by believing in what he stands for. “I think he represents the power, or the magic, of belief itself,” I said, thinking fondly of my parents, now almost 80, who still put out carrots and a bowl of milk for the reindeer whether children are present or not.
“I guess so,” said my son. “But I think he just stands for the magic of giving.”
“What do you think is magic about giving?” I asked.
“You know, how it feels better sometimes to give a present than it does to get one. How awesome it feels to give someone you love something that you think they’ll really like. ”
Now, don’t get me wrong—my son is as eager as any kid is to unwrap his Christmas gifts—but I was happy to hear these words, and they left me thinking about the nature of giving, what it really means to give, and why we’ve ritualized the act of giving at this particular time of year.
In just a couple of days we in the Northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. In many parts of the world we are experiencing bitter cold: a call to curl in, hunker down, and seek warmth.
As mammals, we instinctively face the cold dark by simultaneously conserving and sharing. By turning inside and reaching out. Like foxes and bears and squirrels, we stay put in nature’s darkest hour. We move inward. We shelter. We become quiet. We burrow into memory and reflection: prayer, the lighting of candles, rituals of silence and observation. And we also gather. Like penguins, who press themselves into a circle of contiguous heartbeats to counter the arctic night, we too draw our bodies nearer to others’ at this time of year: congregations of singing and sermon, feasts with family and friends, long snuggles under blankets and bedclothes.
Born of and sustained by the earth and its cosmos, we can’t help but feel, if only unconsciously, closer to our own dark patches when the world from which we’re made is cold and dark: our grief, our sorrows. Our regrets. Our wounds and aches.
And yet, it’s also when we sink into our own darkest hours, our most vulnerable places, that we instinctually seek warmth and light: connection, comfort, and communion.
This pirouette from dark to light, from what hurts to what heals, is, I believe, the condition of gratitude: a deeply human, perhaps deeply animal, confrontation of our own fragility and mortality coupled with the recognition of our potential for tenderness, healing, and love. At the darkest hour, when the clamor of life-making quiets and we’re face to face with our vulnerability, we’re especially attuned to that which brings us feelings of comfort, safety and hope: a heartfelt hug, a close friend’s sympathetic ear, laughter (our own or others’), a shared meal with people we enjoy, an expression of understanding, a song we love, a poem that moves us, a beloved’s empathy.
Gifts of love like these are what feed us in the leanness of winter’s seeming indifference, strengthening our capacity to not only reach out, but to receive. As such, this dance between asking and accepting, gifting and receiving, is crucial to the maintenance of sentient life, big and small. We might think, then, of gratitude in and of itself as an essential survival skill, a practice we’ve evolved to see us through the darkest, coldest seasons of our lives.
I think this is what my son senses when he says that Santa stands for the magic of giving. What all of us intuit and practice as we hang our stockings, light our menorahs, gather for feasts, sing our hymns, spin our dreidels, wrap our gifts, decorate our trees, and put out carrots and a bowl of milk on Christmas eve.
Giving doesn’t just feel good, it keeps us alive. It threads us together through the eye of our common needs. It helps us thrive by waking our capacity to see and be seen.
This holiday season, I invite you to practice the magic of giving in all that you do, but especially in less conventional, less commercial ways.
Let it remind you of the darkness each of us inhabits, that vulnerable place that leans into and summons the light.
Let it guide you into forgiveness, the condition of joy.
Let it open you up to your own best self, that part of you that loves to love, that is love, whose love dissolves the illusion of the lone, unwelcome self.
One way to put this intention to practice is to give a handwritten letter to someone you love in lieu of a present you purchase. This could be a letter of gratitude. You might begin by telling this person what you like most about them, using as much detail as you can to craft a picture of how you see them in the world: the way he speaks to you and others. The work she does in the world and how much you admire her. The way he plays and laughs. The things she makes and creates. You might then focus your attention on the things this person does for, and with you. The way he makes you laugh, how his whole face lights up when he smiles. How she’s always willing to listen, without judgment, even when you feel like a mess. You might conclude by sharing a way in which this person has inspired you. What you’ve learned from her. How he’s helped you to become more of who you want to be.
You might illustrate or decorate or embellish your letter.
You might put your letter in a box, wrap it, and set it under the tree.
You might slide it into a stocking.
You might slip it beneath your child’s pillow.
Or you might give it to yourself.
I’d love to hear about your letter, and how writing it—and giving it—helped you spread the magic of giving this year. Leave a comment below, and feel free to share this post if you like it!
Love—and with gratitude,