I know some folks lament the commercialization of Christmas, but there’s something about it all that appeals to me. While this year all of the Christmas presents we gave were purchased online, I usually enjoy watching shoppers trying to decide on a special gift in local stores and I smile seeing people put money into the red Salvation Army kettles, giving without needing recognition or reward and the bell ringers bundled up in the cold and wishing everyone a merry Christmas.
When my children were little, I loved watching their faces filled with surprise and delight when they ran into the living room early on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left under the tree. And now that they are grown and have children of their own, seeing the exuberance of our young grandchildren when Santa makes a surprise visit to our house. There is something magical about it all that I truly love.
The idea of giving gifts at winter solstice and Christmas comes from many historical sources. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia during the week of winter solstice. It was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. In Northern Europe, families decorated with evergreens and holly. Odin flew over their homes during the winter solstice riding his eight legged horse Sleipnir and bringing gifts and candy. In the Christian tradition, the magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus. When I was a child, Santa left unwrapped gifts under the Christmas tree while we slept on Christmas Eve night. It wasn’t until 3 Kings Day on January 6 that we unwrapped family gifts.
Saint Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myrna Turkey, was known for his generosity and kindness toward the poor and especially toward children. He was known for giving treats and small presents to them and even bags of gold to young women who could not afford a dowry. Santa Claus is an archetypal combination of St. Nicholas and Odin, and became renowned when Clement Moore wrote his now famous poem “Twas the night before Christmas” in 1822. Since then, we all know that Santa flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, comes down the chimney to fill stockings and surround the Christmas tree with gifts. All of these traditions have blended together to form the Christmas that many of us celebrate today in the Western world.
But did you know that the people of East Asia have a folk figure like St. Nick or Santa? According to their historical legend, Hotei (or Budai) was a whimsical Buddhist monk who lived during the early tenth century in China and was a good and generous man with a kind heart. Like Santa, Hotei has a cheerful face and a big belly, and is widely recognized as the fat, laughing Buddha we see in Asian restaurants and stores. Hotei is considered by some followers of Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto to be the god of good luck and happiness as well as the guardian of children. He carries a large cloth bag over his back that never empties. Inside of it there is an inexhaustible cache of gifts.
Benedictine sister Mary Lou Kownacki wrote a wonderful poem expressing how Hotei’s bag doesn’t always contain what we hope for, but just what each individual needs:
Hotei: The Enlightened One by Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB
Hurry, the enlightened one
Enters the city gates
An old patched bag slung over his shoulder.
The enlightened one
Meets a hungry child
Reaches into the bag and bread appears.
In a golden carriage a wealthy lord approaches
A lightning bolt escapes the bag and strikes
Him to the ground. I am blind, he cries.
Long lines of complainers gather
And tongues of fire fly from the bag
Into their mouths. They speak with new voices.
Representatives of the state appear.
Truth topples from the bag
And strips them naked.
An old woman pulls at the enlightened one’s robe,
Tears streaming from her eyes.
Out of the bag
Comes a listening heart.
Oh, for that bag you should sell everything.
The Japanese offer us another gift appropriate for Christmas, It is the practice of Naikan (Japanese for looking inside). Naikan is both a spiritual practice and a psychotherapy method developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, a prison chaplain in the 1940s. It was adopted by psychotherapists in Japan and is now used worldwide. Teacher and writer Rabbi Rami Shapiro adapted Naikan for his own daily spiritual practice and highly recommends it. Naikan is a Christmas gift we can give to ourselves every day. Here it is is a Chestnut shell:Just before going to bed at night, ask yourself these questions:
- What gifts have I received today?
- What gifts have I given today?
Begin by making a written or mental list of what you have received during the past 24 hours in detail. Be specific and list as many things as you can recall. These “gifts” do not have to be anything big. They may be a smile, someone holding a door for you, a nice comment, or a warm beverage. These gifts can include help or support you received from people, but you can broaden this to incorporate gifts from the non-human world of animals and plants, water and other elements. When finished, reflect for a while on each gift on your list.
Now focus on question 2: What gifts have I given today. Most of what is on this list may be small things you have done for others. Again, when finished, reflect on those things. Over time, you will begin to see the interrelationships with others and with the natural world. For example, Wendy and I love to watch the variety of birds at our bird feeder while we eat breakfast. They give us joy and we fill the feeders and throw some seed on the ground as our gift. It is a reciprocity that is gift to both the birds and us.
The spiritual practice of Naikan can help us awaken to the kind of gifts we receive and how we respond to them inwardly and outwardly. It will also teach us what kind of giver we are. Kahlil Gibran wrote:
There are those who give little of the much which they have and they give it
for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life
and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty. There are those who give
with joy and that joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain,
and that pain is their baptism… Through the hands of such as these, God speaks,
and from behind their eyes, God smiles upon the earth.
COVID-19 changed Christmas for most of us this year. But giving and receiving gifts was likely still part of the celebration - not just gifts wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree or those sent by mail, the but the gifts of telephone conversations or Skype or Zoom get togethers. They were the Christmas carols and songs we listened to and maybe sang along with. They are the familiar holiday foods we ate and the smiles given and received, but were unseen behind masks, and the simple gift of wishing someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Holiday.
Many of us have a Christmas tree in our home. A tree that stays green all through the cold dark winter and reminds the us that Spring will return - that the darkness has not overcome the life force or viriditas as Hildegard of Bingen calls it. We decorate our tree with lights of festive colors or that twinkle like little stars that remind us that there is light even in the darkness of winter and of COVID. We hang ornaments that bring back memories of Christmases past and family. Around the base we placed gifts that represent our love and appreciation for each other. Even with the sadness of COVID and the separation that it has caused, we are still gifted in so very many ways.