Opinion: The spirit of Christmas

POSTED: 12/23/11 1:25 PM

We’re a hypocritical lot, we are, and don’t we all know it. All year long we go hammer and tongs at each other – in politics, in business, at school and even at home – but when it’s Christmas everybody suddenly – and we may add inexplicably – goes into the mode we call the spirit of Christmas. While all year long we take, Christmas is the season of giving. We buy ourselves silly and shower our loved ones with electronics they don’t really need, and suddenly the packer boys at the supermarkets find five dollar bills in their hands instead of the measly quarters most shoppers part with outside the Christmas season.

True, all this has a nice touch, but what is it really all about? Here is the dirty little secret nobody talks about.

We go into the spirit of Christmas mood to make ourselves feel better. We may wince at times at a price tag, but hey, this is not a season to show your character’s Scroogey side. So we whip out our credit cards – interest rates be damned – and we buy and buy until there is nothing left in the stores and in our plastic wallets.

We’re being a bit overly cynical here, of course. We’re not so much enthralled by the spirit of giving (for many Christmas is more about getting) as we are about the thought of sharing.

Traditional thinkers divide the world in haves and have-nots. Those with money and those without it. Karl Marx, the son of a wealthy middle class family in Trier, thought that the middle and upper class were running society purely for their own benefit. Capitalism, in Marx’ view, was the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Through class struggle he envisioned the death of capitalism and the rise of the worker’s state, the dictatorship of the proletariat and eventually a stateless and classless society under a pure form of communism.

However, Marx overlooked one factor in his concepts: human nature. With hindsight we are now able to safely say that in the former communist states like for instance Romania (Ceausescu) and east-Germany (Honecker) the leaders lived like the ultimate capitalists while the population they held under their iron fist suffered.

Human nature requires a balance; most of us do not like extremes. We are comfort creatures. We appreciate the safety of our homes, and we enjoy the pleasures of life – like time for ourselves, company, and material things like flat screen TVs, fast cars, iPads and e-readers.

And while we surround ourselves with all these pleasures, we tend to forget that there are people in this world who have to make do without all this. They are either living under the rule of a repressive regime, or they have no job, no income, no home, or no family – or a combination of all these negatives – and they feel left out. They feel like have-nots.

Is there a reason why some people have it all while others don’t have anything? Sure there is. Everything that happens to us is the result of choices we make. Some of those choices we made decades ago. Some of us soaked up knowledge in school like a sponge, while others spent their time on needs of the moment and ignored the lessons they could have learned.

That’s where the divide begins. Oh, there are tons of reasons why some kids do better in school than others. Certainly, the situation at home plays a part. A kid whose dad is an alcoholic drug user who beats up his wife every day creates a slightly different environment than a caring father and husband who supports his family in every possible way.

While such circumstances may explain why some kids turn out this way and others that way, they are not a valid excuse. There comes a moment in life when children are old enough to make their own choices. They could be at a disadvantage when they reach that stage, but it is never too late.

A kid that chooses the easy way out, for instance by becoming a drug dealer, will sooner or later find out that this choice was not so clever after all. The death rate among drug dealers is higher than that among, say, bookkeepers and truck drivers.

So how should we look at people who have seemingly been dealt a bad hand in life? The easiest seems to be to ignore them. They made their choices, and now they have to live with the consequences.

A passage from Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious novel American Psycho comes to mind where lead character Patrick Bateman, who makes tons of money on Wall Street, approaches a beggar who asks him for a quarter. He laughs at the beggar and says that he has plenty of quarters. Why don’t you go find a job? He sneers before walking away.

That’s not something one does easily with the spirit of Christmas in mind, but no matter how unsympathetic this may sound, Bateman had a point. There is a reason why beggars remain beggars and that is simply this: they chose to be beggars.

A beggar is someone who knows that there will always be some fool around ready to give him what he needs. It could be a dollar or a hamburger; he will get what he wants every day. He may not live in a nice home, and he may not own all the electronic gadgets people like to surround themselves with, but he does not seem to care. It’s like he’s found a nice market and he is happy to operate in it until the day he dies.

These characters do not only exist in novels. We see them on our island as well. Suddenly they are right next to you on a parking lot, asking for a dollar. In Marigot, they populate parking lots and pose as rogue guards while pressuring unsuspecting tourists for money; they also hang out around sea front eateries, begging for a piece of bread or a dollar. Remarkably, no beggar on the French side has ever asked us for a euro, which shows that they are no experts in exchange rates.

So how do we deal with these people? First of all, we’d think, they are humans like you and me. And they need help, that much is obvious.

But help does not come in the form of one-dollar bills. That money only keeps these people where they are – in the gutter. Truly helping people – in the spirit of Christmas – is taking them by the hand and showing them that there is another way to spend one’s time on earth. Give them a decent meal, listen to their stories, and go out of your way to find solutions.

Because those solutions are out there. Employment, even if the work consists of odd jobs, gives people a sense of worth; it gives direction to people’s lives, and eventually it boosts their self esteem. This will make them realize something they always knew and never wanted to acknowledge and that is that they don’t really want to be a beggar.

You see, beggars are humans like everybody else and they have the same basic needs: food, love and shelter. We figure that true love is hard to come by for people who spend their days begging in the streets.

There is a lot to be said in favor if the spirit of Christmas, but we have to change our focus – from getting and rather senseless giving to truly reaching out to our fellow citizens.

That brings us to the following. Christmas lasts just two days; the Christmas shopping frenzy takes two, maybe three weeks.

True heroes manage to keep the spirit of Christmas alive also during those other 49 weeks.

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