Apparently today is “Giving Tuesday”— a day to focus on philanthropy following the apparently universal self-indulgence of “Black Friday.” Let me start by saying that if this day truly encourages some people to genuine charity that’s great! But there’s something about it all that seems put-on, forced, and even downright irritating.
Of course, every holiday or special day is in some way forced. Dig through any tradition and you’ll find yourself feeling like aspects of it are a little bit arbitrary or contradictory (ex. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th.) And yet, there’s something very different about Christmas and Giving Tuesday. There’s something very different about Passover and Labor Day. The difference is clear. The religious holidays celebrate a supernatural phenomenon or event. Religious holidays demand that we be awestruck by that phenomenon or event. And they change us– often without our even realizing it.
They do this through their rituals: fasting and feasting, reading of sacred texts, singing of sacred songs, telling of stories and lighting of candles and burning of incense. The religious holidays require of us seemingly superfluous actions in order that we might be lifted out of the ordinary and drawn to the extraordinary.
The non-religious holidays— the government or twitter mandated holidays— insist on remaining practical. Why Giving Tuesday? Well, it’s “good to give back” especially when you’ve taken so much. So they mandate it. There’s no real tradition or ritual. And if it is successful at all, it’s really only successful because of social pressure. I highly doubt people will ever get as excited for Giving Tuesday as they do for Christmas.
Now, I know that many people would say, of course no one is that excited! Kids love getting presents from Santa. No kid is going to love philanthropy. That’s why you have to mandate it. But that’s not always true. Sure, the stereotype of an American kid is an American brat. But there are plenty of children and adults for whom the greatest pleasure of Christmas is in giving. (Indeed, many of these people spent their Black Fridays buying for others.) But they’re not giving because of a hashtag.
People give on Christmas because the whole spirit inspires them to do so. That spirit cannot be manufactured. It is the result of ritual and tradition. It is the result of looking heavenward. It is the result of being moved by the supernatural.
I’m not saying that non-religious people can’t be giving on a particular day or on every day. Not at all. But I would argue that it’s much harder to convince people from a non-religious perspective. For all the flack religion gets for “guilting” people it really shouldn’t need to. The theology speaks for itself. (You ought to love others because you were created to love and you will only be eternally satisfied when you live in love.) The secular world cannot claim such a theology. They can appeal to psychology, sure. They can tell us that people are generally happier when they are grateful and when they are selfless. But the fact that it’s only “generally” makes the whole argument quite weak. More often than not, the secular world must appeal to guilt. They must say, you shopped for yourself on Friday. There are people who need things more than you do. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture and some statistics. Now’s your turn to give.
And that may work for some people. But I know I certainly prefer the call to give that comes from bells and candlelight and poetry. I prefer the call to give that comes from the example of an actual Giver— from the stories that move my heart and make me know that I was made to give. I prefer the holidays that don’t guilt me but, instead, inspire me. Besides, those kinds of holidays are far more fun anyway.