As the editor of a newspaper, I felt very short-changed this year. Nobody gave me a survey. All the other editors seemed to have one, but mine must have been stuck on the tanker in the Suez Canal with all those Playstations. I was therefore reduced to putting news on my news pages. (Christmas quiz question: What's the definition of news? Answer: Other people's surveys.)
The one I liked best was the one that asked quite a lot of children what the true meaning of Christmas was. The Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph were rated pretty highly, especially in those classes where the teacher put the correct answers on the whiteboard. But my heart went out to the refractory 20 per cent who insisted that Christmas was about presents. Long may they resist the veneerers of piety.
They also happen to be right: Christmas really is about presents. Now, five days afterwards, the church services are done, the family has gone home, the leftovers have been popped in the freezer, the carpet has been vacuumed, and what are you left with? Presents are what you're left with.
Surrounded when one is by the spoils of Christmas (perhaps "surrounded" is a bit strong, unless you're under the age of 14), it takes some puzzling to work out what these things are, even though they're now all unwrapped. For one thing is certain: they are more than the objects themselves. My wife laughs at me because I refuse to put the new books on the shelf, the socks in the drawer, the wine in the cupboard, and so on. To do so would be to render them ordinary. As long as they stay in my little heap, they have an aura: they are gifts rather than mere objects. I feel under obligation to enjoy them, and long to be able to do this without using them up or filing them away. Whatever they are, they deserve attention, and (I imagine, fondly) the extra time that the post-Christmas season affords me. Indeed, they speak to me of the leisure that can be mine in their company, if I can only keep the outside world at bay.
Now that there is a little time to reflect (you can tell that I've avoided the sales so far) it seems to me that people are seldom very materialistic. I'm not sure if this isn't a failing. It means that they don't notice possessions as much as they ought, and take too many of them for granted. I envy those few friends who know how to shop properly: they know the value and quality of things, and this tends to go hand in hand with appreciating the value of people, too. Contrary to the religious propaganda, people who love material things are the breed that saints are usually drawn from. Saints are called to renounce possessions, not ignore them: spiritual energy comes from the furnace of desire, not the cool larder of disinterest.
But, if you're talking presents, pre-saints are the people you want to be acquainted with: an eye for the beautiful and expensive, and a bank account that hasn't yet been turned over to the Little Sisters of Perpetual Charity. And they do choose wonderful presents, such that we dull recipients are transformed by them. We might tear off the wrapping paper, but the gifts remain covered with a layer of meaning: the gift has been chosen, and you have been chosen to receive it. Keep that stack intact, and bask!
Having established myself as a deserving recipient of any spare gifts that readers care to leave at The Independent's reception desk, it behoves me to draw at least one spiritual conclusion. The language of gift that the Church uses to describe the coming of Jesus is hugely significant theologically. Christ didn't come by right, but was chosen for us; even, in a sense, chose himself for us. We need not trouble ourselves about whether we deserved him. We didn't. But gifts are not the same as wages or rewards, which is a mistake people commonly make. The choosing and the giving happened without any input from humanity, unless one argues that Christ's coming was precisely because humans deserved him so little and consequently needed him so much.
Because Christ came as a gift, it means that we were somehow chosen to receive him. And, all right, the other children in that survey were right, too: the Baby Jesus is important. Most of the year, the Church is concerned with the adult Jesus, who gave us his teaching, his stories and his example. But at Christmas we concentrate on Jesus the infant. His helplessness appeals to us to take him in. Always before us are Mary and Joseph, the supreme examples of people who received the gift of Jesus, with all the joy and sorrow that such a gift brought to them.
It is a lifetime's task to discover what effect this divine transaction has on us. We see it, in small type, in the hard-bitten commercial centres of our towns, as we buy into God's spirit of generosity. And we can see it in the saints around us, and everything they give us.
Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'Reuse content