By Edward Keenan
Here’s a true Christmas story:
I come from a large, and very loving, family. On both sides, really. But my father’s side of the family, the Keenans, are extra-large: my father had eight sisters, and we have been a fruitful and multiplying bunch. Our Christmas celebrations are huge. Sometime when I was very young, we stopped being able to crowd into my Poppa’s house (my Dad’s childhood home) to gather around the organ in the dining room and sing Christmas carols, because we simply wouldn’t fit anymore. So we turned to the church that had always been a second home to our extended family (and where my parents were married, and where I was married) and began hosting our big holiday party in the basement.
We still meet there every year. The parties are joyous occasions, with lots of food and Christmas music and the laughter of children running around and sometimes
imposing on indulging us all with a performance of some kind. Once that was me playing tag and racing the length of the hall; now it is my own children. People I know sometimes wince when they talk about having to spend time with their family on holidays, and say, “you know how it is. I love them, but…” I really don’t know how it is—seeing my family at Christmas is a high point of my year, every year. They may wince about me to their colleagues at the office, I don’t know. But all I feel from them, and for them, is love. As I’ve said before, this makes me among the luckiest people in the world.
Anyhow, our family, as individuals and as a group, have had our financial ups and downs—at times, some of us have relied on the generosity of each other, and of others in our community and our society, to get by. To put food on the table or clothes on our children’s backs or to have a roof over our heads. We’re conscious of this, I think, in good times, and remain grateful, and are looking for ways to provide the same kind of support to others.
Soon after we moved our feast to the church hall and started counting each other in dozens, we realized it was impractical and a bit silly for all of us to keep exchanging gifts—gingerbread houses and sweaters and framed photos—every year. We decided to pool the money we spent on gifts for each other and use it to make a gift to a family (or families, some years) in need. We found local schools and agencies who could connect us with people who’d asked for support, and we’d try our best to provide some.
Doing so became its own fun annual tradition. Sometime in December, we all get together and go shopping for food and warm clothes and toys and books—perusing the wish and need lists provided to us and doing our best to work our way through it. Then we head back to may aunt’s place in Scarborough and wrap the gifts up over a big meal. The “family shopping” tradition became a family feast day in itself, our own holiday. We got to see each other, and enjoy each other’s company, and do so while focussing on the spirit of giving, which I think many of us feel is the proudest Christmas tradition. It feels good. And it’s fun.
Every year, a few members of the family would deliver the gift baskets. At our Christmas celebration, they’d often report back—about how the mother of the family couldn’t stop smiling or crying as she thanked us, how they said they’d never hoped or expected to get so much, how grateful they were to us for this gesture because it would make a real difference in their immediate circumstances. It felt good to hear.
One year, when I was about 11 or 12, I think, I volunteered to be on the delivery crew. I got in my aunt and uncle’s car with my cousin, and we drove to Regent Park, where the family lived. I knew Regent Park—some of my friends from school lived there—but I hadn’t spent too much time there. I remember entering the low-rise apartment building by what appeared to be a side stairwell, carrying a box. A fire alarm was going off, but people were just going about their business. There was graffiti in the stairwell, and it smelled of urine. It doesn’t please me that the way I remember it sounds like a movie-set version of what a housing project should be like, but that’s what I remember.
We got to the door, and it opened, and there was a mother there ushering us into the living room to put the boxes down. Then I saw someone I knew: her son, a boy from my school, a classmate of my brother’s. We looked at each other and I was kind of startled. I nodded as a way to say hello. He sort of nodded back and then looked down, and away from me. It was awkward. His mom asked him to come with us back to the car to help get the next load, but by then I’d already quiety backed out the door and was walking around the block. I didn’t want to make it any more awkward for him, or for me.
Part of the reason I wanted to deliver the gifts was I wanted the people we were helping to stop being an abstract concept in my mind. I can’t remember, exactly, if I expected to feel rewarded by seeing the real people who would benefit from the help, but I expected to have the value of the tradition underscored. And it was.
But there was another, stronger feeling I had about the experience, a new one: because the people we were helping were not just generic “poor people,” not strangers, not even versions of our own family at different points in our lives or if we’d had a few different bits of luck. They were my friends. Classmates. And while I remained glad to be in a position to help them when they were in a position to ask for it, I was struck by the injustice of exactly that: Who is in which position. Here we were, two children, who had really no claim to credit or blame for any element our family’s respective financial conditions. But I was, by luck, put in a position to feel good about being generous at Christmas. He was, by luck, in a position to feel embarrassed about his family needing it. Or perhaps he didn’t feel embarrassed and I misinterpreted: Perhaps he felt grateful. Or resentful. Or indifferent. In any case, how is that fair?
Here we’d be at school later, he and I both knowing that I was in a family that provided help, and he was in a family that received it. I could feel good about myself and my family—virtuous—about that, and the best he could feel (or so I imagined) is the humility of genuine thanks. There’s no justice in that.
Justice. That’s the other thing that, reflecting on the experience later, struck me. That this act of charity could provide a bit of help at the end of the year—ease a few things for a little while. But it would not, and could not, substantially change the reality of my schoolmate’s financial circumstances. Our gift would not provide even medium-term stability for him and his family. It is nice to be able to do a little, but it does not make the problems go away. Through charity, we could temporarily relieve some of the edges of poverty, but we could not eliminate it, not even for one kid in one family in our neighbourhood.
We still carry on this tradition, and I’m glad we do. And I still enjoy the shopping get-together, and still feel grateful to be able to do so. But I always remember the deeper, more sobering realities of this exchange that I learned that day.
I was thinking of all this the other day after federal industry minister James Moore, responding to a question on child poverty, asked, “Is it the government’s job—my job to feed my neighbour’s children?” He did this moments after claiming that Canada today, as a whole, is a very affluent place—wealthier than it’s ever been. He apologized after the public uproar, and unreservedly said he thinks it is the responsibility of all Canadians to “be compassionate and care for those in need.” And fair enough. But still, after his initial comments, I was thinking about it.
There’s nothing particularly seasonal about what Moore said. But, like many others, I immediately started thinking about his comments in the context of the Christmas season. Because we’re in this season, and whatever we think Christmas means is on our mind. We usually talk about what we think it means using stories that involve the supernatural.
As a religious holiday for Christians, Christmas celebrates the birth of a man who spent his life preaching peace and giving to others—especially to the poor and the sick and those otherwise most in need. The meta-story—the supernatural, religious part of his story—involved him sacrificing his life, dying in physical agony, in an effort to save others. There are a lot of conclusions you can draw from his biography—as history shows us—but one of the key ones in any plain reading of the stories of his life must be about putting the needs of others before your own, about our obligation to ease the suffering of others. About giving. Surely, the celebration of his birth is about the same thing (featuring, even, a scene involving great, valuable gifts being laid at the feet of a family so poor they delivered their child in a barn).
The mostly secular and beloved story of Scrooge written by Charles Dickens’ in A Christmas Carol, involves a wealthy businessman receiving visits from ghosts to teach him that his life will be meaningless if he does not devote some of it to helping those less fortunate than him. Again with the giving.
The other popular secular story of Christmas is about Santa Claus, a magical man who devotes his life to making and delivering gifts—silently, mysteriously, without hanging around to be thanked—for children all over the world. Because it makes him happy to give them, presumably, and because it will make those children happier to have them.
So here are the morals of the stories about the spirit of Christmas for those who celebrate it, laid out for those who are religious and for those who are not: generosity, giving, helping.
Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s children? It is if you, following the example of the Christmas stories we tell, decide it is. If your neighbour asks you to help with that job. If your neighbour’s child requires feeding. Who else is going to do it?
This brings us to a concept—the inadequacy of charity to serve the ends of justice—that I recently saw Neville Park mention on Twitter, and the article she directs us to by Sarah Kendzior, draws a conclusion from St. Augustine: “”Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
None of us, alone, can actually accomplish the job of feeding all of our neighbours’ children, not in the long term. We can’t, through personal generosity, eliminate child poverty or poverty in general. We can, through personal acts of giving, and through things like food-bank donations and gift drives, help make certain meals, certain days, certain seasons more bearable. But we cannot deliver justice. Or rather, I can’t and you can’t and James Moore can’t. But perhaps we can; perhaps government can. If we agree that it is government’s job. Our job.
As Moore said, we are a wealthier society than we’ve ever been. It is conceivably within our means to—as the government of Canada agreed it should do in 1989—eliminate child poverty. To do that, we would need to—as the government of Canada agreed it should do in 2009—develop a strategy for how to deal with poverty as a country. We have done neither of those things we collectively agreed we should do. Yet. But it is conceivably in our power, for almost the first time in history, to effectively do it. Eliminate poverty.
And we can do so without supernatural help. Miracles and magic are not required, today, to feed the hungry or alleviate suffering. A least not in Canada: we have technology (and the wealth we have created with it) capable of performing the miracles we require, we have a system of government capable of conjuring all the magic we need. There is honest disagreement about how exactly the problem would best be solved—which policies would accomplish the job and how they would most effectively be deployed. But the solutions are not out of reach. The key thing that’s missing are those other parts of our Christmas traditions: we need to wish for it to happen, and believe it will happen. Collectively, we need to want it bad enough that we will make our entirely natural tools perform the miracle for us.
But we need to realize that those tools are not primarily personal charity or generosity. Those qualities are very evident in our Christmas stories—the ones we tell as a society and, very often, the ones we reflect on from our own experiences. There’s a leap we need to make to realize together (as I did in my own way, way back when) that if we want justice in our society—or something closer to it, or even if all we want to do is stop children from going to school hungry—we need to deliver more than personal gifts. We need to change something at the societal level. The magical quality that turns a personal action of generosity into the real possibility of broader, more permanent change is that we act together.
It’s a hard leap to make. Deciding to do things together—through the tax system, and the government, say—makes giving less personal, and because of that, it makes us feel a little less warm about our own generosity. When acting through the government, there’s a little less chance for those in a position to give to feel virtuous about it. And it makes those receiving help or support feel a little less personally indebted, a little less embarrassed or resentful about being in a position to require it. From the perspective of some, that would make it the whole thing feel less like a pleasure or source of warm feelings, and more like an obligation. But, if we decide, together, that it is our job, then that’s what it becomes. And what do our Christmas stories tell us, if not that we should consider it our obligation to help each other? Justice feels less personal because it is less personal. And ultimately, that is one of its virtues.
There’s another secular tradition at this time of year: that of making resolutions based on our year-end reflections. It’s nice to think that we might resolve—as we have before—that it is our job to feed our neighbour’s children, to help each other, to eliminate poverty, to work towards justice. And, like all those putting their resolutions in place, to earnestly work to make that change happen, in the firm belief that it is in our power to do so.
That’s a holiday story I’d like to tell some day.
IMAGE: DREAMSTIME VIA TORONTO STAR