Give Good Gifts This Christmas

Virtue is the only wealth we can take with us to heaven, so stock up this Christmas while it’s on sale!

David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), “The Corporal Works of Mercy”
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), “The Corporal Works of Mercy” (photo: Public Domain)

Well now it’s the Fourth Week of Advent, and the question many last-minute shoppers are pondering is, “What should I get ‘so and so’ for Christmas?” It is a giving time of year — a time for love and kindness, thanksgiving and generosity; a time for family, friends and merry-making. It is also a time to remember the poor and Tiny Tim. On the other hand, it is a busy, hectic, stressful time. Maybe the only question you are asking yourself right now is: “How can I possibly juggle all my obligations to family, friends, colleagues, the Church and the poor?” 

But there is another question we could ask ourselves, whether we love buying gifts or dread it, and that is: “How can I be a better gift-giver this year?”

One might protest, “Isn’t it enough to just give stuff at Christmas? Isn’t generosity supposed to be spontaneous?” Yes, of course. But is there more to it? Jesus reminds us that how we give is also important, which is to say, the disposition of the heart has much to do with the charism of generosity (2 Corinthians 9:7). But what about other considerations like budgeting, prioritizing, evaluating, preparing and considering one’s duty — do these have anything to do with giving well? We may even be tempted to take all the fun out of Christmas generosity by referring to it purely as a “moral act.” It is a moral act, to be sure, but not in a puritanical sense of the phrase, rather in the Catholic understanding of it.

Every act is a moral act. Our daily choices lead us down life’s adventurous path. A moral act is a celebration of freedom, a participation in the drama of Salvation History, an opportunity to cooperate with God’s goodness, a brave move on the field of spiritual battle, the way we grow in virtue, and a test of our maturity, fidelity and love. If it is too painful to analyze your Christmas giving this year as your duty and a series of moral acts, I recommend thinking of it as an opportunity to grow in virtue. Virtue is the only wealth we can take with us to heaven, so stock up this Christmas while it’s on sale! 

If Christmas giving is a moral act that can help us grow in virtue and get to heaven, what does that mean? The virtue of generosity is governed by the virtue of justice. I am not talking about legal justice. The guiding principle of Christian generosity is called commutative justice. The moral basis of commutative justice, what one individual owes to another individual, recognizes the universal destination of goods. God created the world and everything in it for all his people to enjoy and benefit from. The Church has always taught that the best way to safeguard the universal destination of goods is to protect private property rights through rule of law. This includes, for example, honoring contracts, paying debts, charging a just price for goods and paying employees on time — but private property rights also allow individuals to be generous.

Generosity would not be possible without free-will. When we choose to give to another something that is ours to freely give (a portion of own property) we imitate God’s generosity and consequently grow in virtue. Therefore, the Fathers of the Church say that spiritual wealth can be attained by giving material wealth to the poor. Spiritual wealth is virtue — the only wealth we can take with us after we die.

Dependents. Ambrose of Milan says the first group of individuals we owe such justice to is our dependents, particularly our wife and children. It would be scandalous if a father or mother gave all the Christmas money away to roadside beggars but gave their own children nothing for Christmas. No one would deny that. But how many of us parents have first considered our duties of generosity to our children at Christmas? What are parents’ duties to their children? Children deserve parental love, care, physical and spiritual nourishment, education, training in righteousness, career training and preparation for marriage. And what do children owe their parents? Children owe their parents respect and obedience. Even Jesus, the perfect child, was obedient to his parents, Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51).

The principle of subsidiarity affirms that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization that could be done as well or better by a smaller and simpler organization. Thus, giving that can be effectively handled by the family should not be usurped by the Church, state or any larger organization, public or private (for example, the U.S. president should obviously not give us all Christmas presents). The next level of subsidiarity after family is free associations (schools, businesses, clubs, private organizations, etc.). The most common free associations are your local parish community and the business you work in.

Employees. After family dependents, business owners and managers should consider their employees. Before we take care of the poor outside of our home and business, in justice we owe our employees their due. Scripture has many warnings against those who do not pay their employees a just wage and in a timely manner. It is unjust to give to poor strangers (for example, public or private charities) before we have paid our employees their just wages. In return, employees owe their employer a good day’s labor, their cooperation, ingenuity and initiative.

An example of false magnanimity is found in the story of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. Mr. Casby owns Bleeding-Heart Yard, a slum with numerous rental properties. His tenants are working-class families. Mr. Casby charges overly high rents and employs a tenacious rent collector to be the “bad cop” for him. Meanwhile, Mr. Casby plays the part of a benevolent old gentleman, distributing pennies to the children of Bleeding-Heart Yard and inquiring after the wellbeing of his tenants with the display of affection conducive to a loving grandfather. Yet, it is all a sham. He is the one who is extorting the rents by threatening his rent collector, Mr. Pancks, with severe consequences if he does not “squeeze more out of them.”

This is not an example of a business owner taking advantage of his employees, but of a landlord taking advantage of his tenants. Nevertheless, the same principle applies. God will not look favorably on your generosity to the Church or the poor if you simultaneously robbed from those in your legal care. This is the principle of subsidiarity at work again. We owe justice to those closest to us, not furthest away. This exploitation is also a violation of commutative justice. 

Parish community. The third group Ambrose says we should show generosity to is our parish family. If we are looking to be generous with the poor, we need not look further than the poor in in our own parish community. Ambrose says our first duty is to be generous to other Christians in our community.

Christian charity is not primarily a tax write-off opportunity — it is a matter of justice. We owe the poor something if we are close to them and able to give it. Generosity begins at home, parish and work — our three communities of immediate proximity. Generosity outside of these three spheres may even be grievously unjust if we are not being sufficiently generous at home, in the parish and at work.

This brings us to an additional consideration. Generosity should fill a genuine need or a wholesome desire of the person receiving the gift. Simply giving anything without first considering the need or wholesome desire of the recipient could be motivated by the desire to appease a guilty conscience, win a favor or feel good about oneself. A good gift is useful or enriching to the person receiving it. A good gift recognizes a spiritual, intellectual, emotional or physical poverty and tries to fill it, at least temporarily. Being poor is not shameful. We are all poor in one way or another.

The Fathers of the Church are clear about who the poor are and how we should care for them. Every Christian has a moral obligation to show goodwill to one’s neighbor, which includes giving to those in need. Generous giving is governed by the virtues of liberality. Liberality is not limited to giving money or even material goods. In fact, many of the Church Fathers taught that the highest forms of liberality do not involve money.

This brings us back to our first question: What should I give and to whom should I give a gift this Christmas? Again, the key is to practice subsidiarity. According to the Church Fathers: family members, employees and Christian friends take priority in our giving over strangers and beggars.

Scripture and the Fathers make clear distinctions for us about liberality. The following list is helpful for thinking about our duty to be generous throughout the year with those who are near to us, but we can apply the same criterion to our Christmas giving. The Fathers answer our question: “What is a good gift?” in 18 different situations. This list includes the works of mercy, which is our Catholic foundation for acts of generosity, but the list also includes other traditional forms of liberality. Note that the first group of people is children, starting with your own. Hospitality is another form of liberality as is finding employment for the unemployed and lending a helping hand to your neighbor. (This list was compiled primarily from the writings of Ambrose and the 14 works of mercy from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

I realize this is not exactly a Christmas list, but it is a list of worthy considerations for the Christmas gift-giver and the year-round benefactor alike. Perhaps this list is especially helpful for avoiding harmful, wasteful or needless gifts.


How to Be Generous in 18 Situations:

To children — What children need more than anything is parental love and care; they need training in faith, prayer and virtue; they need protection from bad influences (media and peers) that could lead to sins like fornication. To maidens of suitable age — The primary need is to help them achieve Christian marriage and take care to preserve their chastity. Gifts that help a young woman grow in Christian virtue and modesty are the finest adornments. To young men — They primarily need training in a profession that is suitable for a Christian. Gifts that help develop the skills and virtues of a professional are very practical.

To widows (especially our own family members) — We should do our best to give our widowed mothers the care that her husband can no longer provide: provision, community and support.

To the captives — The gift of redemption (with bail or legal means) from slavery or unjust imprisonment (especially women and children).

To the pilgrim we provide shelter (for example, traveling Christian relatives or friends).

To the hungry we provide food (such as a Christmas feast with family or friends!)

To the thirsty we provide something to drink.

To the naked we provide clothing (clothes make great Christmas gifts for all ages).

To the sick we should visit them (a Christmas visit to the homebound).

To the prisoner we can assist within our power.

To the craftsman we should provide employment (consider patronizing your friends’ businesses).

To the disabled we can give our compassion.

To the debtor we can redeem (pay off) his debt (for example, your married daughter’s student loans).

To those in need of assistance we can actively help with our time and labor. 

To the ignorant we can offer instruction (catechesis) and advice (especially pointing out to the wealthy those in the parish who are in need so they can assist them).

To the doubtful we can offer counsel (e.g., advice on Christmas giving).

To the suffering we can offer comfort.

To sinners we can show patience, forgiveness and admonition (for example, your godless relatives).

For the dead we remember them and pray for them (a praiseworthy custom at a meal blessing).


On Receiving Gifts and a Conclusion

A final note is in order concerning those who are the recipients of gifts. We have an obligation back to the giver which allows us to fulfill our debt. This obligation is a blessing because it upholds our human dignity and nature which is created for mutual self-gift. In some cases, we may be able to repay a gift with a like gift. But this is not necessary in most cases. Our debt can be repaid primarily through a return of goodwill, gratitude and prayers toward (and for) the gift-giver. The gift of prayer is the greatest gift anyone can offer in return for a gift received. It is far more valuable than the initial gift itself and thus exceeds the obligation. And we all know from experience that the most welcome response to a gift is sincere gratitude expressed by the gift receiver to the gift-giver.

So, if you are wondering what to give your family and friends for Christmas, you are not alone. Say a prayer for guidance. May God give you wisdom as you make your Christmas choices. We all know who the good gift-givers and dreaded gift-givers are in our families. If these considerations have helped you become a better gift-giver, say a prayer for me and my family. Have a very merry Christmas!