Recently I read that in Austria and some Latin American countries, the bringer of gifts at Christmas is not Santa Claus, but rather the Christ Child. I like our way better. The notion of the Christ Child as the dispenser of Christmas loot raises troubling theological dilemmas that Santa just doesn't present.
When Santa accidentally gives your kid a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it's just shabby elf labor gone awry, but when The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is giving your offspring ultra-violent video games, it's a harbinger of the apocalypse. And while it's no big deal when Santa gives you a pair of Dockers that's a size too small, what is God try to tell you when his Son gives you size 32 instead of 34? Does God want you to lose weight? Does 32 have a sacred meaning in Aramaic? And if you take them back, what will you tell Saint Peter when, on Judgment Day, he asks what you did with the in-store credit at Sears? Multiply all these problems by a hundred if you're a Calvinist. There you are, painstakingly scrutinizing yourself and your position in life to see if you're a member of the elect, and the Christ Child leaves you a sign of God's will: a $30 gift card for Applebee's. What could it mean?
The opponents of Christmas gift-giving will tell you that it means nothing; that the whole yuletide orgy of buying and wrapping and giving and returning is an exercise in moral vacuity and mindless consumption - an appalling example of capitalist folly. Every Christmas goads verbose grinches to blather about the wretched excesses of holiday presents.
These grinches forget that gift-giving and gift-receiving are portentous matters, regardless of which supernatural entity deposits the home electronics under your Christmas tree. Much of our identity rests in the answer to the question "What do I want, and of whom shall I ask it?" And much of our social identity rests in the answer to the question "What do others want from me, and to whom ought I give it?" Who knew that kids were discussing philosophy on Santa's lap?
To think clearly about Christmas, we must ask ourselves not only what others might like for Christmas, but what they ought to like. But in a free society, that question seems like the greatest treason. It implies that some wants are not self-legitimizing; that some people want what they should not have, and fail to want what would bring them the greatest happiness. This kind of language veers uncomfortably close to the old false consciousness song-and-dance: "You think you know what's best for you, but you're wrong. I know what's best for you, because I think clearly and you don't." And while the failed lives of free citizens remind us that people don't always want what they ought to want, the question remains: who are you to tell me what I ought to want? As a grown adult in a free county, I'll decide if the Red Ryder BB gun will shoot my eye out, thank you very much.
The problem of disordered wants won't be resolved on a single day. But Christmas giving suggests a possible solution. Rather than forbidding what is bad, we can give what is good. Instead of saying "Don't do that," we can say "Try this." Instead of saying: "You think you like that awful nonsense, but you don't really," we can say: 'Here's something wonderful; I'm sure you'll love it."
Thus, Christmas giving is a chance to fulfill right desires. We can give people what they ought to want, and the festive wrapping and bright ribbons take the sting off of that angry word, "ought." And in a free country, where we allow any number of distorted desires to be fulfilled in the name of autonomy, we have an obligation to offer the best things in a loving way. We can give the best music, the best books, and the best food, in order to show others just how good life can be. And perhaps such giving can remind us to give the best love and the best examples, to guide the errant back to the right path.
As I write these words, I glance over at my own Christmas tree, which is teeming over with various plastic gizmos and doo-dads for my children. No caramel-coated copies of the Constitution for my kids; no plush SpongeMittRomney Squarejaw; no Kay Bailey Hutchinson Barbie doll complete with Oval Office playset; my gifts are probably as dull as yours. Is Kern a pompous hypocrite? Well, yes, but that's beside the point. Virtuous gift-giving doesn't require us to give the intellectual equivalent of underwear and socks. Some of the gifts under my tree are the toys for which my kids asked Santa; some are educational toys to make my little geniuses even smarter; some are boring, practical items; and yes, some are what my kids ought to want. So on Christmas morning, when my oldest daughter shrieks with joy upon unwrapping her new Marvel Super Heroes action figures, I will tell my wife: "Honey, in a virtuous society, we are enjoined to give those presents that reflect not only what the receiver thinks she wants, but what she ought to hrmmmmghgls..." and then I will gag as my wife jams the wad of wrapping paper even further into my mouth. There's a point to be made here about confusing moral imperatives with personal preferences, but I can't think of it. More important: virtuous gift-giving is a balance, struck between our love for the best in others and our desire to express our love by giving others affectionate tokens of our adoration. Like Marvel Super Heroes action figures. Sweetie, put that paper down!
The flip side of virtuous gift-giving is virtuous gift-receiving. As we give what we ought to give, we should want what we ought to want. We've been struggling with that concept since the very first Christmas. We know that the Christ Child was not exactly what the Jews of Roman times thought they wanted. They had hoped for something more like an action figure of their own, something more akin to Donald Rumsfeld, or perhaps Conan the Barbarian. Even today, the notion of a Prince of Peace can seem far removed from the kind of deity we secretly want - the kind who will make us rich, smite our enemies, and sanction our vices. Thus, Christians observe a time of preparation before Christmas: the season of Advent. Christians know that they must prepare their hearts for the arrival of the Christ Child. They must re-form themselves to want the gift that they've already received. Such reformation is not merely intellectual assent to theological propositions, nor is it a series of benevolent acts made to appease a loving God. The spiritual reformation of the self is a way of being; a commitment to lead a certain kind of life. In such a reformed self, the Christ Child doesn't come to your house to give gifts; the Christ Child is the gift, and once a year Christians remember to leave the door unlocked for Him.
As Christmas has become a secular holiday as well as a sacred holiday, perhaps the secular realm should adopt Advent, too. The inculcation of civic virtue is also a commitment to a certain kind of life; it is the wanting to want properly. And in a society that flatly refuses to tell us what we ought to want, we have a special responsibility to meditate on the value of our strongest desires. If our tradition of gift-giving at Christmas impels us to take a closer look at our own desires - and the kind of life we must lead to conform those desires to our best selves - then the hours spent pricing plasma TVs at Best Buy were not wholly in vain.
So nuts to the naysayers who would take everything fun out of presents at Christmas. We have room enough under our tree for the material and the spiritual alike. We should focus our hectoring, neo-Puritanical impulses not upon commercialism and greed, but rather upon the banality of the desires that ill-chosen gifts can stoke. Give wisely and generously, receive wisely and courteously, and let Ralph Nader sweat the rest. And whether it's Santa Claus, the Christ Child, or Hanukkah Harry who brings you your presents, I hope your Christmas fulfills all the wants you ought to want, and perhaps a few less worthy wants as well.