I feel like playing Mr. Manners or New York Times Ethicist for a day.


I want to discuss the practice of giving gifts in the form of donations to charitable institutions. No doubt some of you readers received one of these over the just-concluded holiday season. You opened an envelope or suspiciously lightweight box. Then you learned the news that a donation had been made in your name to an organization that, say, rescues abused animals or administers vaccines in the third world.

I’m not sure these are “gifts,” properly understood.

They are overintepretations, perhaps indeed violations, of the Christmas spirit.

A gift by its nature is supposed to be selfless. It doesn’t even need to be a thing; it could be a literal giving of your self. Maybe you’re handy around the house. Maybe you’re a gourmet cook. A donation of your time in this case might well constitute a handsome gift to a friend in need or to the family foodie. A charitable donation, in my opinion, violates this principal virtue of gift-giving. It reflects attention back to the giver. A certain sense of self-righteousness underlies the whole enterprise. “We all have so much already,” the giver says. “I want to help the less fortunate.”

A fine and noble sentiment, I say.

I share it myself.

But the giver in this case needs to hew to the Funeral Principle, wherein donations are welcomed in lieu of memorial flowers. Wouldn’t you consider it at least somewhat inconsiderate to unilaterally donate money to someone or something without the family’s prior knowledge or consent? The lesson here is that two parties may agree it’s a splendid thing not to participate in the material and commercial overindulgence of the secular Christmas season. But these parties should agree to this before gifts are exchanged. The charity-minded giver should ascertain which, if any, organizations the recipient contributes to throughout the year. Maybe, instead of those mosquito nets, the intended recipient would appreciate a donation to her local parish; instead of that animal shelter, a battered women’s shelter. Etc.

Agreement, in other words, should not be assumed.

If you think it’s important to prevent malaria in the third world, that’s great. By all means, you should give of your excess in the name of this good cause. Yet recall always the words of a certain humble Nazarene whose birth we celebrate during this season, who counseled us to “sound no trumpet” when we give to the less fortunate.

Sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to go ahead and give that video game or Cuisinart food processor.