I am not sure why I am writing you this letter, but it seems like a good time to write because America needs something that I only think you can deliver. Yesterday, 26 innocent people lost their lives, 20 of them were children between the ages of 5 and 10. I tell my children I believe in you and right now, I definitely need to believe. I’m an adult, female historian who has two beautiful children who are 6 and 7. I hugged them just a little tighter last night. I whispered “I love you,” in their ears because I wanted to make sure they knew how much they are loved. They are the exact same age some of those children who will never hear their parents’ whispers of love ever again and my throat tightens every time I think of that reality.
Letters to you are filled with children’s wishes for toys coveted throughout the year. This letter though, is not one of consumer desires, but one of practical need. But it is not what I need, but what we need as a society. Your modern emergence in the nineteenth century sought to change a holiday that incorporated crude, bacchanalian frivolity. You became a symbol of joy, magic, and yes, the rise of consumer culture. But above all, you represented the concept of unconditional giving. Christmas became the season of giving, and not just the celebration of the birth of a king. For just a brief moment each year, giving, whether it is a toy to a less fortunate child, time in a soup kitchen, or a few dollars in a kettle, demonstrated our capacity to be selfless, kind, and generous. For those families who are facing pain that is unfathomable, they will experience that selflessness, kindness, and generosity from the hundreds of community members who will wrap their arms around them and try to sooth their anguish. For the rest of us though, there is very little in the way of each.
For the next few weeks, as details emerge, politicians, lobbyists, gun lovers and haters, the NRA, Bible thumpers, and so on will wring their hands and point fingers at each other, yelling “It’s not our fault, it’s yours!!!” Every news media outlet will nitpick and line up a row of experts to make sense of this tragedy, while at the same time try to outdo each other in the ratings. But what all of this action will not do is address what we have fundamentally lost as a society, or maybe what we never had: selflessness. Or in other words, a deep abiding need to give. You of course see this in moments of tragedy, many times on a large-scale. But it never lasts very long. The hustle and bustle of everyday life comes roaring back to life. There are deadlines to meet, lunches to pack, texts to send, Facebook pages to read. What happened in Newtown will become a blip in a long line of tragedy. A moment, like Columbine, Northern Illinois University, Colorado, and Virginia Tech, when remembered becomes “oh wasn’t that horrible?” and then quickly forgotten when checking email.
So how does this reflect a loss of selflessness and a need to give? Well simply, look around. Right before the first call was made to Newtown’s 911, we had politicians selfishly holding onto political ideologies and religious dogma. Compromise, a cousin to giving, did not exist. Puffing up and beating their chests to demonstrate their power, they hold steadfast to their righteousness, condemning, ridiculing, and deriding anyone who disagrees, because it is easy to marginalize than to compromise. Bible thumpers, who claim that God is on their side, have become so blinded by a “king” that they have forgotten that in 1776, this country rejected a monarchy. Oh yes, they do indeed give, but it is only to those who are worthy of their “generosity.” Special interest groups, who greedily count the politicians in their pockets, love to give, but it is in form a check to shore up a foundation of morality and twisted notion of American exceptionalism. Corporations, many of whom have enjoyed impressive profits, indeed love to give…to their shareholders. I guess I could go on, but I think you get the point.
So I am sure you are reading this letter, wondering what is it that I am asking for. Well Santa, this Christmas, I’m asking for compassion, selflessness, and generosity. I want compassion to lead, selflessness to compromise, and generosity to give more than just words and gestures. I know these are intangibles that do not necessarily fit into your sack, but you are the only man who can grant this wish. I’m afraid the “king” has become too much of a political and religious pawn (ironic, right?) to ask to fulfill this wish list. So right now, I feel like a child writing this, telling you that it is pertinent that you bring me what I ask for. But if we do not regain (or gain) our ability to feel compassion, to act selfless, and to give generously, then what will become of us?
Merry Christmas to you Santa.
Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.