Friday, December 5, 2014

What's the Greatest Gift?

Sidenote: Two years ago I explained some of our family traditions during Advent and Christmas. We're trying to make charitable giving truly life- and freedom-giving (not just cheap toys). You can read about that here. One book resource we use is this one.
Saint Nicholas filling bags with gold for the poor

Starting the Advent and Christmas Season: What's the Greatest Gift?

Santa isn't on our radar. Saint Nicholas is. As a French and German teacher, I taught high schoolers about him. It's a rare craft opportunity for that age group! Plus pulling apart the 'why' and 'how' of a childhood tradition helps teens let go of things that didn't sit right, stand back, and pick up pieces they'd like to adopt and celebrate.

"I hated realizing that my parents had lied to me! What else had they lied about?" 
"Yeah, so poor kids get a great toy, but they're still hungry the next day. Santa doesn't really help change their life." 
"I like the idea of being generous to all people, even those who can't be nice back."

We certainly compared and contrasted the real Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, with the American advertising invention of Santa Claus. As a teacher, I didn't really focus on the troublesome Krampus or Père Fouettard, or the unhelpful medieval misinterpretations of Saint Nicholas tales; with only 50 minutes, I have to present just the essential information about the real Nicholas of Myra.

Here's what Nick and I do teach Abigail and Evan about Saint Nicholas, whose saint day is Dec 6. As Abigial's awareness of Santa in stores has grown, we've begun comparing and contrasting. For Evan at 30 months, we usually focus on just Nicholas. The parentheses are how we've begun to compare and contrast with Abigail.

(Santa is a pretend game that some families play.) Saint Nicholas was a real person who loved Jesus. Nicholas' parents died. He decided that he had more than enough clothes, food, and house, so he gave everything his parents had given him away to those who had little. 
(Santa lives far away and alone with his wife and elf workers. He wears a floppy hat.) Nicholas was a pastor serving many churches. That's called a bishop. He carries a shepherd staff as a reminder of how he's supposed to care for all the people in those churches. He wears a tall pointy hat, called a miter, as a reminder of his special bishop role. It has a cross to remind us all of Jesus. Jesus is God and he came down to earth to live with us and love us personally.
Nicholas is tall and thin (Santa is fat from cookies). Nicholas only took or ate what he needed. He spent much time traveling to see people who were sick, visiting them to show love, and giving away food or money that they needed. 
Once he heard that a man couldn't pay money for his daughters to marry. He was afraid that the daughters would become slaves. Nicholas secretly gave each daughter a bag of gold -- more than enough money to marry and eat in the meantime -- so that they would thank God for providing. 
(Santa gives toys to just good children.) We don't know if people deserve these gifts, but we trust God to use them wisely. We give grocery or gas gift cards, so that people will have their most important needs met. We give money for food animals or help for a water well in countries around the world because Jesus came to change lives. We give money to take kids or women out of (sex) slavery because Jesus came to rescue all people and give freedom. We give secretly, so that others will thank God not us.

We don't leave toy catalogues around the house... we leave the catalogues featuring animals, small business loans, water wells, justice and legal help, fair trade goods and foods.

We shopped together Wednesday at Walmart and Target for gift cards to give to Lutheran Child and Family Services. This year, in order to best serve their clients, LCFS has asked for grocery, big box store, and gas gift cards in $25 increments; they also gave estimates of how $50/100/200 check donations would be used. Then we drove to turn them in. We'll select an international gift tonight. The kids will get chocolate coins (like gold Nicholas gave) and candy canes (like the bishop crozier or staff Nicholas carried) tomorrow morning... and we'll read one more time about how Nicholas was generous because he wanted others to know Jesus' love and freedom.
Nicholas secretly leaving bags of gold,
to save three girls from slavery.

Close to Home: Dignity, Life and Health

On an even more personal note, being on the receiving end of care packages and donated gifts to seminary families has heightened our giving radar. I hesitate to write this because I don't want to downplay others' generous hearts: but some gifts are more life-giving than others to families on the edge.
  • Grocery gift cards are great for fresh foods -- which food pantries often don't carry.
  • Gas gift cards help pay for daily work transportation and special visits to family.
  • For seminary families, an Amazon gift card helps pay for textbooks.
  • If a specific item is mentioned, like gift card to DSW for new shoes, then it is likely needed but hard to fit into a basic rent/utilities/food-driven budget.

We're thrifty people, who understand the value of second hand stores and that many retailers donate end of season clothing to second hand stores. We share items among each other. Please give us the dignity of not donating cheap dollar store toys, $1 foam crafts, or half-price books with mismatched pages instead of our listed needed items.

For families who have dietary or allergy restrictions, grocery gift cards are very valuable: many food pantry items - especially donated day-old baked goods - are not safe. So fresh foods, specialty diet foods, gas, and textbooks are hard to come by for many seminary families.

Fresh foods give health. Gas gives life to earn a living and visit family. And money for education or textbooks help make a promising future possible. This is the spirit of giving of Saint Nicholas, who let Jesus' love transform his life and others' lives. This gets close to the greatest gift, Jesus, who came to die for our sins and restore our relationship with God, and give us eternal life and promising future. May you thank God for the blessings already in your life!

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