Are you ready yet? Bought all the presents, decorated the house, attended carol services, ordered the turkey, made the mince pies, written all the cards and countless other preparations for Christmas 2011? Whether you celebrate Christmas, another religious festival such as Eid or Diwali or indeed no religious festival at all it’s still very easy to be ‘caught up’ in the wealth of preparation that can lead us worn out before the day itself.

Next year celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In one of my favourite books: A Christmas Carol Scrooge uttered these telling words:

What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.

There is much here about stress and worry, anxiety and displeasure let alone gruesome punishment! There may well be people reading this who echo Scrooge’s thoughts entirely. There may be others who Christmas has become a moment’s happiness only to be followed by a year-long fear of the debt incurred.

The spirit of Christmas must have more to it than either of the two examples above and I believe that it does. As a Christian, I do believe that God sent his son, as a babe, into the world as a gift so that believing in him would bring us the gift of eternal life. The world of psychology has much to say on this subject too. The act of giving itself seems to have psychological benefits on us too. I call this Benefit Finding. Studies have consistently shown, such as that reported in Social Psychological and Personality Science that counting our benefits (blessings) has a significant benefit on our wellbeing. It also makes us more likely to show our gratitude and share our benefits with others.

It benefits to start early, mind. The younger we get into the habit of counting our blessings and giving to others the easier it is to maintain this practice throughout our lives. No surprises there then. It’s reassuring for some of us that we can change. We might not change over-night, as Scrooge did, but we will change.

As you’re wrapping your presents, think about all the pleasure that gift will bring to the person you’re giving the gift to. The act of giving should be a joy. That means deep and long-lasting. If the fear of the consequences brings worry and fear about how you’ll ever pay for it all (remember a credit card is a debt card; you’ve debt to pay back!) surely it’s probably not worth it. As you’re thinking about what you want for Christmas or whatever the festival or occasion is, be realistic especially in these austere times. And if I may challenge you what about fore-going receiving a gift and to ask for someone to make a charity gift on your behalf? Oxfam and many other charities allow this. We’ve done that before and there is something very satisfying that you feel when you know someone else in the world has benefitted.

Benefit Finding helps us cope when times are tough for us too. Make a list of all the things you’re grateful for. There are more than you immediately record. As you start to compile the list, the act of actually saying aloud, “Thank you for…” will have a personal benefit. And, as recorded above, the more we acknowledge gratitude the more likely we are to show it to others.

To end with, and what I hope ties all this together, is that it reminds me of that wonderful scene where God is speaking to Evan about making an Act of Random Kindness (ARK – taken from the film: Evan Almighty) in the lives of those around him and finally Evan realises why he’s been building the ARK. Making an Act of Random Kindness to others was its own reward and it changed Evan’s life as well as the lives of those around him for ever. Similarly, we do the act not because of what we’ll get back as a result or indeed for how they’ll respond in the first place but merely because the act brings us pleasure  (and if it’s a true act of kindness it will bring them pleasure too).

What to do:

  • Count your blessings and record them in some way
  • Find a way to show an Act of Random Kindness

May be even make a charity gift.

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens