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Unwrapping the true meaning behind the season of giving

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ONCE the “ber” months start in the Philippines, the undeniable feeling that Christmas is fast approaching becomes evident to Filipinos, who set up Christmas decorations in their houses or establishments and blast seasonal music to get people in the mood.

During this time, people also start exploring ideas and opportunities on what they can give their loved ones as gifts during the season of giving. It’s also the ideal time to share their blessings with those around them.

According to research and historical claims, various reasons make people feel extra generous during the holiday season, with a significant basis on religion and psychology.

From a historical and religious perspective

Historical accounts claim that gift-giving has been a practice in many civilizations long before the birth of Jesus. Many early cultures, such as the Romans and the Norse, had winter solstice festivals that included gift-giving.

The Roman pagan god of agriculture, Saturn, was celebrated during the winter solstice, also known as Saturnalia, on December 17. However, sometime during the Ancient Roman Republic (133-31 BC), Saturnalia became a grander celebration. Starting on December 17, the citizens celebrated the entire week. Saturnalia was festive with all kinds of events. Some celebratory practices included giving gifts and sacrifices to Saturn.

Meanwhile, in Christianity, Christmas is a festive celebration because it commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. During his birth, Biblical accounts tell the tale of the three Wise Men or magi who gifted the Messiah with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, each symbolizing Jesus’s roles in Christianity as King, High Priest, and Prophet, respectively.

On the other hand, Christianity also believes that Jesus Christ is God’s gift to the world, thus making his birth the start of the season of giving.

Eventually, Christmas became associated with a gift-bringer that spreads joy across the globe. The most common name or concept is the red-cheeked, jolly Santa Claus with his sack of treats, which he transports via a reindeer-pulled sleigh. He also goes by other names, including Saint Nick or Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas.

While Santa Claus is the well-known version of this Christmas gift-bringer, some countries have their variation. For instance, Italy believes an elderly woman delivers the gifts, while Spain says it’s the Wise Men. It all boils down to perspective, as there are no right or wrong answers because their presence helps spread holiday cheer.

In the Philippines and most countries, the season of giving occurs every December, or Jesus’s birth month. But that’s not always the case. Some gifts in Mexico aren’t opened until January 6 for a celebration known as the Epiphany.

Another common practice during Christmas is setting up Christmas trees and putting presents underneath for children and loved ones to open on Christmas Day. Others opt for stockings on fireplaces and windows so Santa Claus can easily fit the gift inside before going his merry way.

From a scientific perspective

Besides religion, psychology and neuroscience also have some explanations behind an increased motivation to give to others during particularly festive periods.

More than a decade ago, a team of neuroscientists peered at brain activity using an fMRI scanner of people who decided whether or not to be charitable to determine the motivations behind their actions.

One significant finding from that study, and others made after it, is that being charitable activates brain regions involved in processing rewards. The same regions are active during donating as when people receive money, eat delectable food, and do something they love. Scientists interpreted their findings as the neural basis for the warm, fuzzy feeling people get from giving.

People feel satisfied when giving to others is the social approval associated with helping others. Studies from several behaviors discovered that doing socially approved actions, such as being charitable, affects reward-related brain activity. It means that people will be more likely to give when an opportunity to tell others about it comes.

Moreover, social norms also help people decide whether or not to be as generous as they are. If they identify as charitable, it feels incompatible with not giving when everyone else is because identity is often relative to others.

Economic research also suggests that the abundance or lack of finances contributes to people’s decision-making regarding charitable donations. For example, almost everyone receives a Christmas bonus during the holidays, giving them some leeway to spend on gifts or help others. But during regular days, some might skimp on gift-giving because of a tight budget and similar reasons.

Spreading joy to others

Regardless of motivation, being genuinely charitable to others is a staple during Christmas. While there’s the usual exchange of gifts between families and friends, others decide to include their community in the festivities. Private individuals sometimes go out of their way to initiate efforts to give gifts or treat their communities and other sectors to good food or experiences.

In the meantime, some companies hold similar charitable activities during the holiday season as part of their corporate social responsibility or goodwill.

One way to celebrate Christmas and spread the joy of giving is by organizing community charity drives to encourage others to join the festivities. The drives can have one or more focus, whether gift-giving, donations, or food.

Some people who prefer to follow rather than lead can always volunteer their time, services, and other resources to relief operations.

These operations can also be done overseas to help people in conflict areas that the world hears about in the news.

Besides the less fortunate, people can shift their focus to service workers and other industries that make their daily lives comfortable and secure. Dropping by a hospital or police station to give sandwiches to nurses, doctors, and the police as thanks for their service can promote Christmas cheer.

While religion or science suggests some explanations why people become generous during the holidays, sharing blessings with others, especially the less fortunate or underserved sectors of society, helps uplift the community and spread the general message of Christmas–love, joy, and peace.


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