That Partridge in a Pear Tree: Holiday Reflections on Gifts and Gift-Giving
Video shown before the sermon: http://youtu.be/38x6kWB-xD4
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
12 drummers drumming
11 pipers piping
9 ladies dancing
5 golden rings
4 colly birds
3 french hens
2 turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree…
Christmas invites us to be like the true love of this song—someone who symbolizes his or her affections through giving that’s not necessarily practical but is nevertheless oh so thoughtful. A man climbs a tree to retrieve a robin’s egg that matches his girlfriend’s blue eyes. A father buys his son a BB gun even though he might shoot his eyes out. All are but versions of that archetypal gift of a partridge in a pear tree.
All are also echoes of evolutionary and historical forces that are ancient beyond anything Christmas. Researchers say that evolution favors gift giving. We can clearly see the pattern in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee, where food is regularly given in exchange for access to key social experiences like grooming and sex. Gift-giving strengthens relationships and improves chances for survival.
Historically one of the most fascinating illustrations of this is the potlatch. Says New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope, “For thousands of years, some native cultures have engaged in the potlatch, a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.”
Christmas just wants to immerse us in these ancient patterns and rhythms. It wants to move us into a potlatch heart space which is not so much about prestige as lavishness. Don’t stop with just a partridge in a pear tree. Go all the way to twelve drummers drumming! And why stop there? Why not go on to day 13 and 14 and beyond? (“15 John Stewarts sassing.” “16 X Boxes blaring”…)
Which is also why Christmas can trigger moral rebellion in us, or worse. When the partridge settles on the pear tree, come Christmastime, what we might feel in our hearts is not just cheer. Feelings are not unmixed. My hope for all of us is that we are able to allow ourselves to dwell in that wonderful Christmas potlatch heart space, but to get there, we need to address some difficulties….
Think back to the gifts of the song:
A partridge in a pear tree
2 turtle doves
3 colly birds
4 french hens
5 golden rings
9 ladies dancing
11 pipers piping
12 drummers drumming
Now THAT is what I call a shopping list! But the really scary thing is how probably any one of our individual shopping lists for the season might rival it. Things to buy for immediate family and closest friends. Things to buy for everyone else. The unwritten rules of gift-giving can make us go from single partridge in a pear tree to 12 lords-a-leaping in the blink of an eye. Unwritten rule #1: Someone gives you a gift, so you gotta get them a gift. Unwritten rule #2: You give a gift one time, and now it feels like you have to continue the giving forever. Unwritten rule #3: If you give a gift to one member of a group (like family, friends, or co-workers), you need to give equal gifts to all. Now I’m not saying these unwritten rules are rationally valid. I am saying that they have us in a powerful psychological grip. Therefore the length of our shopping lists. Therefore all the commercialism that sees itself as merely serving our interests but, in reality, is only whetting our appetites for more and more.
And therefore the moral rebellion, which is just under the surface of something someone posted on Facebook recently: “It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. I think I’ve memorized my credit card number.” More blunt is what a survey from 2005 showed: four out of five Americans think the holidays are way too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption. We’re fed up. Now, Christmas commercials and Christmas paraphernalia and everything CHRISTMAS are starting to appear BEFORE Thanksgiving! It’s Christmas creep, and it’s disturbing….
But you know, we are most definitely not the first generation to feel this way. Go back to 1850. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) wrote a short story about the problems posed by Christmas shopping. “Oh dear!” sighs one of the characters, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I’ve got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.” This character goes on to say that it is impossible to decide what presents to get for people “who have more than they know what to do with now.” Then this character does something we all do: she thinks back to Christmas past, and in comparison, Christmas present falls short. When she was a girl, “the very idea of a present was so new that a child would be perfectly delighted with the gift of even a single piece of candy.” “In those days,” she says, “presents did not fly about as they do now.” Now, “there are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s voice here could be any of ours today, even though she speaks more than 150 years ago! But there is one big difference we must not pass over, which historian Stephen Nissenbaum in his book The Battle For Christmas is careful to point out. Nostalgia makes us look back and see something purer when, in fact, presents were “flying about” just as much then as now. But when Harriet Beecher Stowe looks back, what she had in her past was not materialistic at all. The historical truth is this: the very first advertisement for Christmas presents in America dates back to 1806. It means that there was a time before all the commercialism and materialism. It means that when Harriet Beecher Stowe expresses moral rebellion, it’s fresh, new rebellion—and ours, more than 150 years later, is but the continuing echo.
Before all the materialism and commercialism, here is what Christmas in America looked like. Much of it was determined by the economy of the time, as well as the season. In the 17th and 18th centuries, America was still very much an agricultural economy, in which good food was scarce through much of the year. Fresh vegetables were available during late summer and early fall, and the only time for fresh meat was when the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad—I’m talking December. Couple all this with the fact that December was the month when the year’s supply of beer or wine was ready to drink, together with the fact that December marked the start of a season of leisure for the farmer, and BAM: it’s party time.
Christmas has always had a potlatch heart. Always some kind of excess that draws moral disapproval to it like catnip draws a cat, or a flame draws a moth. So in the time before all the commercialism and materialism, what you had was a kind of Mardi Gras experience. It was a time to blow off steam and flout social norms. You had cross dressing, you had public lewdness, you had role reversals of all kinds. People would choose a Lord of Misrule, and he and his court would act like sacred clowns mocking social conventions and those in power.
This last part is especially fascinating. Christmas, before all the presents and all the commercialism, used to be a time when the poor claimed a right to make demands on the rich. Says Stephen Nissenbaum, “Christmas was a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were the wealthy and powerful. [They claimed the right] to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money.”
And for their part, the rich tolerated it. For one thing, when you have a mob of rowdy young men outside your door singing…
We’ve come here to claim our right
And if you don’t open up your door
We will lay you flat upon the floor.
… and the police don’t blink an eye, well, you are simply going to comply. But the rich also knew that severe economic inequality creates terrible tension within society, and so some kind of safety valve is needed. Thus the role inversions of Christmas from long ago.
Out of all of this, there are three things to be said.
One is me simply wondering out loud. Clearly, something happened over time to transform Christmas from the rowdy, out-of-doors Mardi Gras craziness to the domesticated and civilized indoor gift exchange that Harriet Beecher Stowe came to know and that we know now. Something happened. But I wonder what it would be like for some of that old-style inversion of rich and poor to rear its head today. The image that comes to mind is that of the mansion of one of today’s corporate CEOs who makes 380 times the average salary of one of his or her employees. At Christmastime, the employees come in a horde, banging on the door, demanding the right to march into the house and receive gifts of food and drink and money. There’s just something perversely satisfying to me in the thought of this….
It’s just that the economic divide between the superrich and the rest of us is obscene. The middle class struggling and disappearing—the poor still with us—and yet there’s the superrich who just keep collecting their houses and jets. It’s bad for us all. This is not meant to be an indictment of capitalism, or the right to keep what you earn. It is a call for decency, however. It is a call for finding the right balance between individual and corporate interests and the interests of the common good.
I’m just wondering out loud about whether we have lost a Christmas tradition that might serve us well today. I mean, when I found out about how a Wal-Mart in Ohio requested that its low-wage workers donate food to other low-wage workers so that no one would have to go without on Thanksgiving, I was outraged. Said a Wal-Mart spokesperson, “This is part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.” Well, how about just going ahead and paying a living wage? That would be an even better way to rally around one’s employees. Don’t do charity, do justice. Big difference between the two.
That’s the first thing. Just wondering out loud.
And I have to say: if, in my wondering out loud, you found yourself feeling uncomfortable, all I can say is that you are in good company. Misrule, social inversion, is messy. Chaotic. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not like it either. And so, what the historical record shows is that Unitarians and Universalists took the lead in reforming Christmas. Now the alternative was to go the route that the Puritans took, which was to ban Christmas altogether. They said, “Look, there is no Biblical basis for December 25th being the date Jesus was born.” They said, “Listen, you’d have to be an idiot not to know that Dec. 25th was the date when Romans and other pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice.” They said, “Come on, people! We all know that the early church made Dec. 25th one of their own holidays so as to compete with the pagans and steal their thunder. Thus the need to PURIFY things.” This, coupled, with all the immorality and craziness, led the Puritans down the road of Don’t Do It, Not Gonna Go There.
But our forefathers and foremothers did something different. As Stephen Nissenbaum says, “In the forefront of [those leading the movement] were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated Christmas from the earliest stages of their existence in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, even before their congregation was officially organized […]The Unitarians were close behind. Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to. [Classic Unitarian healthy self-esteem!] And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.”
One of the best kept secrets about Unitarian Universalism is that in so many ways, Christmas as we experience today is the direct creation of our religion. Christianity has Easter, but Unitarian Universalism has Christmas. Not just because of the role it played in transforming the holiday from an out-of-doors free-for-all to an indoors scene of loving domesticity centered around a gift exchange, but also in terms of popularizing the Christmas tree, the creation of Santa Claus, and the writing of some of our most beloved Christmas carols. And guess who wrote that immortal story A Christmas Carol? A Unitarian, Charles Dickens. He makes Christmas focus not on the person of the Christ and not on fancy religious doctrine but on the real abiding essentials of spiritual living like goodness and generosity and transformation. Well of course. Because he was a Unitarian! He had his spiritual priorities straight…
But did our Unitarian and Universalist forebearers serve our country well in the ways they helped change the face of the holidays? They made it into something more focused on domestic gift-giving that very soon (by the 1830s!) ballooned into materialistic and consumeristic excess. Ever since, we’ve been trying to figure out how to keep that excess in check. Advice abounds on how to make the holiday more simple and meaningful; advice abounds on how to stay sane in the whole gift-buying and gift–giving scene. To cover some of this advice would be its own sermon.
Here, I just want to answer the question. Did our Unitarian and Universalist forebearers serve our country well? I say yes. I say that they did the best they could, faced as they were with the partridge in a pear tree which looks like a tiny bird but inside it is a HUGE song. So huge, it overspills all our efforts to contain it. However the season is celebrated, whether with out-of-doors misrule, or indoors gift-exchanges, or with maybe something entirely different 100 or 200 years from now, I bet the farm that the result will always be extreme and lavish in some way. Because that’s the spirit of the season. It’s the tiny bird with the HUGE song.