WHAT IS MONEY FOR?
The Christian Art of Christmas Spending

December 2010By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. He is the author of The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels (University of America Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature (Neumann Press), An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press), and The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization (Neumann Press).

A person may do many things with money: spend it, save it, invest it, hoard it, waste it, bequeath it, or hide it. Everyone purchases groceries and pays bills; the prudent save from their earnings; the daring speculate and watch money reproduce money; the miserly gloat upon the treasures they have accumulated; the foolish squander their money on unnecessary luxuries or burden themselves with debt; and old-timers hide their money under the bed or bury it in the yard. However, there is another use of money that is distinctly Christian, that epitomizes the Christmas spirit: giving it away and forgetting about being acknowledged or rewarded, and remembering that money is merely paper or metal, not something precious, a means to an end, not an end in itself. The Christmas season is the ideal time to cure the mind of adult obsessions about money and to conquer the habit of extreme frugality.

O Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” underscores the truth that spending money on gifts of love is one of the highest arts of civilization. A young married couple, struggling to make ends meet, saves pennies to buy each other a treasured gift. Della can only purchase a chain for Jim’s prized watch if she cuts off her luxurious hair and sells it for a wig; Jim can only afford to buy the expensive jeweled combs for Della’s gorgeous hair if he sells his valuable watch. On Christmas day, Della presents Jim with the chain for the watch he sold, and Jim offers Della the golden combs for the hair she cut short — an awkward, comic moment that makes both gifts impractical.

Despite the apparent uselessness of their presents, O Henry compares them to the gifts of the Magi, for they too “sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.” While Jim and Della appear foolish because their gifts serve no immediate use, the chain and the combs make perfect sense as Christmas presents: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest,” O. Henry writes, because the gift from the heart is the surest token of pure love.

While all men who live responsible lives must balance their budgets and use prudence and frugality in their spending habits through the course of the year and throughout the many years of a lifetime, Christians are also obligated to practice the virtue of liberality. Just as it is wise to save money, it is healthy to spend money on others. Openhanded generosity at weddings, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and other special occasions reflects the joy of giving when the event and the person justify munificence. If men only save money, or use it exclusively for utilitarian purposes or necessary expenses, they never learn the lesson that money periodically needs to be given away by way of charity or gifts lest the habit of economy breed an excessive attachment to wealth or a loss of trust in God’s divine providence. Ultimately, as Dante demonstrated vividly in Purgatorio, gold and silver come from the dirt, and the avaricious who worship mammon receive the punishment of lying prostrate on the ground, groveling for the metals in the earth that ruled their lives and constituted their only treasure. Without holidays and celebrations where gifts enhance the festive spirit, economic man would never learn detachment from money or gain an appreciation for the inestimable worth of spiritual joys. The Christmas season is the time to remember this most Christian discipline of self-forgetfulness that detachment from money cultivates.


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