Taking Christmas advice from ancient Rome

Wrap stars: One person in 10 starts planning their Christmas shopping as early as July.

Is giving really better than receiving? As people across the world spend billions on Christmas presents, a leading Roman philosopher’s thoughts on the subject have never been more relevant.

Christmas is approaching, but the young couple have no money to buy each other presents. After much agonising, the wife hits on a desperate plan: she sells her only thing of value – her beautiful hair – so that she can buy her husband a chain for his precious pocket watch. But when he comes home, she learns that his present to her is a set of combs – and that he has sold his watch to pay for them.

This is the plot of O Henry’s classic short story, The Gift of The Magi. Some might see it as a tragic farce: the couple have sold the things that mean most to them, and given each other something that is now useless. But less cynical readers will share the author’s view – that what really matters is the sacrifice they have made for each other, which is an expression of love more valuable than any gift on earth.

This year, as always, spending on Christmas presents is expected to be huge. It is estimated that Britons will part with a total of £24.2bn – an average of £476 each.

The pandemic, though, means that these figures are lower than they were in 2019, with many people having lost their jobs and others reluctant to visit shops. A poll by the website finder.com found that 40% of people were reducing their spending by putting a price limit on their gifts.

The website’s head, Jon Ostler, points out that presents do not have to be expensive, or even physical. The important thing is to choose something the recipient will value, which could mean making them something or taking them for a day out: “These could last longer in the memory than a product.”

Present-giving, of course, is much older than this Christian festival. The Roman philosopher Seneca chose it as the subject of his most extensive work, De Beneficiis (On Benefits).

Seneca argues that generosity and gratitude are among the greatest virtues, and that giving and receiving are essential to a healthy society. Without the impulse to give, we are worse than animals; with it, we can emulate the gods, whose creation of the earth was the greatest gift imaginable.

His definition of a gift is a loose one. “Help this one with cash, that one with credit, another with influence, another with advice, another with beneficial teaching.” What matters is that these are “generous acts, done in an eager and voluntary spirit, that bring joy, and also reap joy, from the act of giving”.

Crucially, you should not expect anything in return – even public thanks: “If you give a benefit in order to reap a reward, you didn’t give it.”

At the same time, he insists that it is vital for those who receive presents to acknowledge them. Ingratitude, he believes, is not only morally wrong but a threat to social stability: “No other flaw so much undoes and tears apart the harmony of the human race.”

Seneca offers one conclusion which is very similar to O Henry’s: “Often the ones who put us more in their debt are those who gave little but with great spirit.”

Is giving better than receiving?

A lift from a gift

Some say, no: one of the greatest thrills in life is to open a present and find that it is something you have been longing for. Giving is extremely difficult – the best presents are surprises, but you can never be sure how they will be received. People often give expensive things only to find that they are never used, and bitterly resent wasting time and effort on them.

Others, including Seneca, argue that we have a duty as humans to look after each other, and gifts are a way of helping people acquire what they want and need. Giving makes us feel better about ourselves; we can also enjoy the pleasure others take in our presents, and the gratitude they express. Research shows that having strong social networks makes people healthier, and gifts help build those.

You Decide

  1. Would it be better to give money to charity at Christmas instead of spending it on family gifts?
  2. Was Seneca right to say that ingratitude is the greatest source of strife?

Activities

  1. Draw an illustration for O. Henry’s story.
  2. Write a one-act play about an ancient Roman who arrives to spend Christmas with a modern family.

Some People Say...

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931), Lebanese writer and painter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Seneca (c. 4BC – 65AD) was one of the most important of all Roman writers. Born in Spain, he was a playwright as well as a philosopher: his celebrated tragedies include Medea and Phaedra. His father, known as Seneca the Elder, was an expert on rhetoric, and his nephew was the poet Lucan. He died when Emperor Nero, whose tutor he had been, ordered him to commit suicide as a punishment for taking part in a conspiracy, though the charge was probably false.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there is such a thing as pure altruism – doing good to other people even though it brings you no obvious benefit. Evolutionists say no: people look after their families mainly so that their own genes will survive, and do favours to others so that they will receive some in return. Psychologists argue that giving makes us feel physically and mentally better, causing a surge in the “feelgood” hormone dopamine and a fall in the stress hormone cortisol.

Word Watch

Hair
Wigmakers used to buy people’s hair. In the story, published in 1905, Della sells hers for $20, which is as much as her husband earns in a week.
Pocket watch
Before watches small enough to wear on the wrist were invented, people carried watches in their pockets, often connected to a chain so that they could be pulled out easily.
O Henry
An American author (1862 - 1910) whose real name was William Sydney Porter. He made his reputation as a short-story writer while serving five years in prison for embezzlement.
Magi
Another name for the Three Wise Men in the Christmas story. A magus was originally a priest of the Medes and Persians, whose territory is now Iran.
Lower
The average British adult is expected to spend £37 less than last Christmas.
De Beneficiis
Probably written between 56 and 62. Seneca begins by saying that “almost nothing… is more disgraceful than the fact that we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits”.
Emulate
Try to match. It derives from the Latin word for rival.

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