It’s getting close to the holidays and for many that means family gatherings, egg nog, and most anticipated of all — presents.
Presents, at least in America, have to be gifted during Christmastime; otherwise, it isn’t even really Christmas. Why? The popular reason is because shortly after the birth of Jesus, three wise men came to him and each presented him with a gift. This explanation of why gifts are given has no historical basis when it comes to the famed Christmas tradition. The real answer lies with the practices of early corporations in America.
Early corporate leaders in America presented Christmas as a time of love and giving based on the birthday of Christ. They told the public that buying gifts for their family, more specifically their children, was exactly what Christ would want. Eventually, this practice of purchasing presents for family and friends would catch on and it became a tradition. The consumers are happy because they are able to feel better about themselves when they give out gifts, and the businesses are happy because they make a massive profit.
Thus, Jesus became irrelevant, just a minor detail about the day when you buy gifts for everyone you like. It is strange, saying, “Jesus is irrelevant,” because Christianity is the world’s largest religion with nearly 3 billion adherents, including myself.
But it is true.
No one does anything for anyone, such as buying or receiving gifts, selflessly. The mentality is, “If you spend $70 on me, then I have to match that and spend $70 or more on you.” It isn’t about how meaningful a gift is but how much money a person had to spend to purchase it for you that determines its worth.
That’s what matters.
If we had a little more Jesus – and not necessarily in a religious way but in a way that suggests giving for the sake of love – no matter the price – Christmas, and even life, would be more meaningful and I know this firsthand.
Growing up, I was raised in a very secular manner with minimal focus on religion or spirituality. My parents – both of Indian descent – really had no ties to any particular faith. My family as a whole has a diverse background. I have family in India, Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and many other places, but they all have different religious beliefs. Some are atheist, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Jain, and Buddhist. My parents – out of the various beliefs found in my family – happen to be agnostic with a strange blend of Hindu and Christian tradition.
Due to the culture I grew up in, it is a little strange to take a large tree and place it in our home and then decorate it with little lights and ornaments. So we never really celebrated Christmas in the traditional sense. We also never celebrated Diwali – the festival of lights most Indians celebrate – because my parents had never really done that so they weren’t accustomed to it.
But I went to both church and temple throughout my life. That was certainly weird because in one building I was praying to a tall, blonde guy who – for some reason that I wasn’t aware of back then – was on a cross, and in the next building, I was praying to a vast collection of different gods with different skin colors and varying numbers of appendages.
As a result, I never really had a solid faith that I was raised in. I wasn’t forced to do anything by my parents at all. They never pushed me to study or believe this or do that.
I believe that it’s because they were not worried about me, considering that I am a stellar student with a clean record. So I just went ahead and considered myself an atheist, with the philosophy that nothing really matters in life, so just indulge yourself.
And I did.
For the formative years of high school I did learn to enjoy myself.
I did most of the things you would expect out of an ordinary high school student minus anything illicit.
But something was off.
I felt empty.
Don’t get me wrong. When I was living in the moment everything was just fantastic but afterwards … there was no sense of accomplishment or success or even happiness.
I had no purpose.
To know that the likely path that my life would take would be high school, then off to college, then getting a safe – whatever that means – desk job, then retiring as an old man with kids and grandkids and then finally death … inspired dread in me.
Is that all?
Just a boring script of an average human being with no purpose to the plot, no meaning?
What all this meant was that everything I took enjoyment in was shallow.
It didn’t mean anything to me.
So I ventured out to see what meant something, anything to me.
I was in India – over the summer leading into my junior year – when I learned what meant something to me.
It was late in the day – the evening to be precise – and the bridge leading back into the city of Mumbai was under construction, so we had to take a detour through the slums. The slums – to me – were always so foreign. I had never stepped foot in them because I never had to. All I really knew about the slums was that poverty was rampant, but it was nothing that I expected. Children – elementary school-age boys and girls – were walking around with minimal clothes and some without any clothes. The homes were made out of metal scraps, half the space of an American classroom, but they accommodated families of six to seven people.
Once we got close to the city limits, my baby cousin grew restless. He was apparently hungry, so we stopped at a street vendor selling vada pav – a sandwich with a deep fried potato dumpling in between the bread. Vada pav generally costs around three rupees – or about four cents – so we get five vada pavs, because they are small and it is cheap. Around the corner were a group of kids that ran up to us, asking for a couple of rupees so that they could eat too. These children were dressed like every other child in the slum, that is to say, very minimally.
I was stunned when my aunt proceeded to scold these little children and called them dirty thieves. I didn’t understand so I asked her in front of everyone, “They just want some food. They aren’t here to steal anything from you. Give them a few rupees. It’s cheap. Don’t be irrational.”
Now, one thing to know about India is that it is a taboo to speak against the actions of your elders, so people began giving me strange glances.
My aunt simply responded by saying, “You are American. You do not know our customs. Charity begins at home, then you feed others.”
It was apparently this reason – that charity begins at home – that those kids didn’t get to eat that day.
Is that a good enough reason to starve children, whose parents cannot even make $500 in a year?
I wanted to give those kids some money. I really did. But I had nothing on me.
I’ve never felt worse.
What world would allow such a travesty to happen such that children have to live day to day?
Eventually, I was born again as a believer of Christ, because the teachings of Christ and his life represent everything that I wish humanity represented. To know that there is a higher power with unconditional love – whose only teaching is to love everyone no matter what – gave me purpose.
I wasn’t just living for myself anymore, but for my family and for my friends and for those kids from India.
My purpose isn’t to convert anyone but to merely convey an idea which I have.
If we, as a community, were able to do things for one another because we loved each other, how much more harmonious would we be?
If we were all to put aside our prejudices and our obsession with monetary values, how much more worthwhile would our lives be?
I know that humanity has a tendency towards greed and selfishness, but at least we can try and better ourselves.
Starting this Christmas, let’s do things for love.
Anuraj Nair is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl