Every season we ask: “Why can’t the spirit of giving last all year?” We strive to be less selfish. We want compassion to be part of our students’ characters. Yet wishing doesn’t make it so. What can we do to nourish these traits in ourselves and our students? How can we make generosity flourish all year ‘round in our schools and in our homes?
Every child possesses a spark of generosity. The trick is to build on it without forcing the child beyond his or her level. Gift giving should never become mechanical. We want children to give because they identify and empathize with others. We want to develop generous hearts.
Most children are pretty quick to see that one doesn’t have to be rich in material things to give. The thought and care that go into a handmade gift enhance it. Store-bought gifts aren’t bad, however, if selected with the recipient and her or his interests in mind. Making sacrifices to save money for presents is part of giving, too.
The European custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas is based on the story of the three wise men who brought gifts of gold frankincense, and myrrh to the Infant Jesus. Before that, Europeans followed the ancient Roman practice of giving gifts for the New Year which is still a tradition practiced in many parts of the world.
You may also be surprise to learn that Christmas gift giving take many forms. In Mexico, children celebrate the 9-day festival called Posadas by reenacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Then they break open a papier-mâché animal called a piñata, which showers them with candy and toys. In the Philippines, we celebrate an adoptive version of the Posadas, called the Panunuluyan, where a dramatization of the journey of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem takes place on Christmas Eve. The Panunuluyan is an integral part of the Philippine Christmas celebration, and a reminder of our close historical ties to Mexico.
In Sweden, one of the most popular gifts comes from children, who give their parents breakfast in bed every December 13. The custom celebrates Luciadagen, or St. Lucia’s Day, the beginning of the winter holiday.
Between December 24 and December 31, many Jewish families celebrate Hannukah, an eight-day festival of lights. They light candles on a candelabra known as a menorah and give children Hannukah gelt in the form of money or coin-shaped chocolate. The holiday honors the day in 162 B.C. when the perpetual lamp in the temple of Jerusalem had enough oil to last only one day but miraculously burned for eight.
At the end of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a holiday where families and friends feast, visit one another’s houses, and exchange presents. In different Muslin countries, different gifts are traditional. In Pakistan, Muslims mark the day by sharing saween, a sweet tasting pasta made with sugar, nuts, and dried fruit. In Turkey, giving children sweets has become so traditional that the holiday is better known as the Candy Festival. In the Philippines, Eid al-Fitr is a time to give to those in need, and celebrate with family and friends the completion of a month of blessings and joy. Each Muslim family gives a determined amount as a donation to the poor known as sadaqah al-fitr (charity of fast-breaking). This donation is in the form of food—rice, barley, dates, etc., to ensure that the needy can have a holiday meal and participate in the celebration.
In most parts of the world, New Year’s Day is the biggest gift-giving holiday. In Russia, friends like to give one another a matrioska or “little mother” doll, a set of dolls that nest inside each other. The Japanese exchange roly-poly daruma dolls that bounce back no matter how often they are knocked over as symbols of good luck. On Chinese New Year, which usually falls on January or February, children are given “ang pao”, small red envelopes filled with money. In India, on Dewali, a five-day celebration in late October or early November, Lakismi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune, comes to call, and children receive candy and handmade toys of clay and papier-mâché.
Many Eastern cultures have especially nice ways to honor families. In Japan, on an autumn holiday called Shichi-Go-San, or “Seven- Five-Three-”, parents take their seven-, five-, and three-year-olds to a shrine where priests drop special cakes and candies into their bags. And on Babin Den, celebrated on January 20 in Bulgaria, children bring flowers to doctors and nurses who helped bring them into the world.
Every culture has its own rich tradition of giving and its own special ways to give. And as we can see, gift giving is not always just about toys, things, or possessions. But regardless of the manner in which gift giving is celebrated, one thing remains constant: giving is a show of appreciation for someone, an extension of your heart to another. The real essence of giving a gift, therefore, is something that is given selflessly and without ulterior motives. So, how should we teach our children to give?
First, giving should not be something practiced only during the holiday season when it is easy to share our fortunes. Rather, giving needs to be brought into our lives all year long. Our children need to see us model charity and giving from January through November. If not, the message are we sending them is that we should only respond to those in need at Christmas time.
Second, we need to get them involved, so that the act of giving becomes real to our children. One effective method for school-aged children is having them accompany you in choosing gifts and clothing for the less fortunate. When we explain to our children why we have chosen these gifts and for whom these gifts have been chosen, we teach our children how to spread love by sharing with the needy. Children love being helpful because it makes them feel grown-up, and volunteering “gives them the chance to experience the deeply rewarding payoff that comes from making someone else happy,” says Deborah Spaide, author of “Teaching Your Kids to Care”.
The greatest gift of all, of course, is oneself. When we encourage children to give their time, talents, and concern, they slowly begin to discover that giving builds self-esteem and generous hearts. In an atmosphere of constant sharing, joy naturally comes from seeing the look of happiness on someone else’s face, knowing that you were part of that precious gift.
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Source: Excerpts have been lifted from Joan Kane Nichol’s article, “The Art of Giving,” Creative Classroom Magazine November/December 1997