Every year in preparation for the holidays, there’s a lot of talk about how it’s better to give than to receive. Many people say we should “give to the needy” and make the holiday about “family instead of stuff.” The idea here is that to want gifts is frivolous, shallow, and greedy. While this could certainly be true in certain circumstances, the idea doesn’t work universally. For starters, calling poor/working class people “the needy” comes from misplaced ideas about who deserves to have their needs met and who doesn’t.
Calling poor/working class people “the needy” comes from misplaced ideas about who deserves to have their needs met and who doesn’t
The bottom line is that we all have the same human needs for food, shelter, medicine, etc. However, when poor people cannot afford them, we are seen as burdensome. What’s more, conditions preventing us from meeting our own needs are rarely if ever acknowledged, and we are instead made to feel as if our needs, like wanting gifts, make us frivolous, shallow, and greedy. Indeed, we are made to feel as if we are always already asking for too much by virtue of being poor; and that instead of giving, we only wish to receive.
A recent viral video wished to show that this was not the case, and when given the opportunity to choose family over stuff, poor children would make the “right” choice. In the video, poor children are asked what they want for Christmas, and what they think their parents might want. Upon answering, they are presented with both gifts. They are then asked to choose between keeping their own gift, or forfeiting their gift so that their parents could receive a gift instead.
While I was not surprised to see that all the children featured had given up their own gift so that they could give a gift to their parents, many people online seemed quite the opposite. Indeed, not only were they surprised that the children would give up their gift, but many people expressed that they felt moved and inspired by the selflessness of the children. What many people seem to forget around the holidays is that being in a position to give is itself a privilege — one that many poor people are rarely able to take part in.
As a poor person, I often feel a deep sense of shame around holidays and celebrations where gift-giving is expected, because I know that I won’t be able to afford the “nicest” gift, if I can afford one at all. Seeing videos like this one leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth, because it feels as if poor people are expected to prove that we’re selfless in order to “deserve” nice things, because being poor is seen as inherently selfish. Meanwhile, it has become popular for people to film or photograph themselves performing charitable acts, especially around the holidays, to prove that they also value giving over receiving; ignoring that perhaps poor people don’t want to be the subjects of their poverty porn, or that giving itself should be enough.
Ultimately, I do believe that giving is better than receiving when one is able. At the same time, I want people to know that receiving isn’t automatically bad, and that having needs does not make someone “needy” or selfish. Poor people do not take advantage of others by having our needs met, and hoping for gifts one (or several) days out of the year does not make us greedy. If the spirit of the holidays is truly rooted in thankfulness, kindness, and joy, then perhaps we could express those feelings not by treating poor people like seasonal gimmicks, and instead like human beings.