A look into how two separate traditions became part and parcel
By Rama Sobhani
It’s obvious to say that Christmas and charity are related. Every year around this time, there is a quantifiable swell in the efforts made by charitable organizations and in the amount of donations made to them by the public. Christmas is a time of giving and the pitches for donations and events held to get more of them just go hand in hand with it.
But charity is a very specific concept and one that materializes best when it’s done as often as possible, so how has it become that one time of year has become so strongly associated with it? Christmas, of course, comes with the story of the birth of Jesus and the three kings who brought the newborn savior gifts. It’s easy to see how that translated into a running tradition of gift-giving during Christmas. But giving gifts to others isn’t necessarily the same as charity, which carries with it the idea that the target of giving should be the less fortunate and, along with that, the things given should be more of necessity than luxury. In fact, this is quite a distinction from the Christ story, where the three kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh, which are luxury items and do nothing to address the basic needs of a poverty-stricken couple and their newborn child.
Yet, it is Christmas again and if one doesn’t see everywhere the signs of increased efforts at charity, the familiar “under a rock” designation should apply. Around this time, the United Way and its many partner organizations, which includes the Salvation Army, every local church, food pantries, civic organizations and secondhand stores are working as hard as rodents gathering supplies for winter, except their dedication is going to help those who have a hard time helping themselves in efforts to create a little more of the increasingly rare concept of goodwill toward men.
As the executive director of the United Way in Knox County and Crawford County, Illinois, Mark Hill is familiar with how many organizations are busy around this time of year asking for donations.
“We try not to step on other people’s toes when it comes to holiday giving because we understand there’s a lot of demand for giving around this time,” he said.
Hill said the giving season now overlaps so much between the holidays starting in late October until the end of the year that the last third of the year is essentially one long fundraising season.
Hill described United Way as a sort of one-stop-shop of charity. There are many charitable organizations on the United Way roster, including Hope’s Voice, Court-Appointed Special Advocates, Life After Meth, 1972, the Red Cross and many more. It’s part of Hill’s work to have dialogues with all of them to get a better understanding of their needs and how their campaigns are going.
“We pay all those agencies quarterly and provide a dialogue to share what’s going on with their programs and create opportunities to mix and match to create broader opportunities with those dollars,” he said. “There’s a lot of nice synergy that comes.”
St. Vincent De Paul thrift store, 1604 Main St., a branch of the local Catholic church of the same name, is quite busy this time of year receiving donations from area churches, which are ramping up their efforts this time of year, too.
Debbie George, the food and clothing coordinator at St. Vincent De Paul, said beginning in the second week of October, the store’s employees had been swamped with processing donations that were coming in from churches and the area’s Catholic schools. George said as much as Christmas playing a role in the increased charity, the time of year, with cold weather becoming a concern, drives donations, too.
“It does seem to get busier in the winter months,” she said. “We do a winter clothes giveaway … we do coats in the winter for anyone who needs it.”
St. Vincent DePaul
St. Vincent DePaul also runs a food pantry, utility payment assistance and does a program at Christmas to deliver baskets of supplies to needy families, which George said often includes homeless people from both inside and outside of Knox County.
One of the most active organizations around Christmas time is the Salvation Army, 2300 N. Second St., with ubiquitous bell ringers posted at every major business asking for donations. That’s in addition to the many other things the organization does to help the less fortunate, which also includes a food pantry and clothing giveaways.
“The essence of giving has become part of the Christian tradition at Christmas because there’s more opportunity to give at that time, but the Christian tradition is to give all year.” — Dennis Latta, rector at the St. James Episcopal Church
While Christmas is the busiest season, local chapter captain, Laura Lunnam, said that the Salvation Army’s efforts are a constant presence and donations are always being taken.
Being from near the Detroit, Michigan, area, Lunnam said the dedication of the residents of a smaller town is noticeably different than from where she grew up.
“There’s people that randomly walk in and hand us money because they know we need it,” she said. “This is new to me, being in a small town, it’s good to see our community come to us and say I want to make this as successful as possible.”
Lunnam said she was a recipient of the Salvation Army’s goodwill as a child and knows how some of what they do, especially the toy donations around Christmas, can change someone’s outlook on Christmas.
“I grew up as a kid on the Angel Tree (a program of the Salvation Army for which donors buy specific gifts for children of families who can’t afford to). My mom wasn’t able to provide Christmas for us. If she did, we wouldn’t be able to eat.” Lunnam said. “The need has always been there.”
The Christian connection
It’s that need which is the basis for the type of charity advocated by the Bible but not necessarily the story of the birth of Christ. Dennis Latta, rector at the St. James Episcopal Church, 610 Perry St., thought about the link between charity and Christmas before pointing to a particular Bible verse he feels explains the concept of charity. It’s something he believes has just evolved out of traditions that originated with the Christian concept of giving in about the last 50 years.
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me,”’ Latta said as he quoted Matthew, chapter 25.
Charity, Latta said, is something Christians are encouraged to do all the time, but the spirit of Christmas pushes more of it for a while.
“The church was tagged onto this because the secular world is more in the giving spirit the two or three weeks before Christmas and so they’re related to the Christian commandment that’s there all the time,” he said. “You have the 12 days of Christmas and the gifts of the magi to the Christ child, that relates to the idea of giving gifts and giving them to other people and the idea of giving to the poor vis a vis the Christian focus on giving. The essence of giving has become part of the Christian tradition at Christmas because there’s more opportunity to give at that time, but the Christian tradition is to give all year.”
Hill, too, thought over the religious significance of charity and agreed, like Latta, that its association with Christmas has occurred, more or less, organically over time.
“From the religious point of view, you have the three kings, gifting and Jesus’ birth and those things we associate with Christmas … I think there are certain physical needs … clothing, utility costs, that become significant needs during winter and the holiday has become a time when people are in the mode of giving,” Hill said.
It’s better to give than receive, Hill summed up. Doing so will likely remain inseparably one of the driving forces behind Christmas.