Sense and Nonsense: What Gifts Are These?

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Some months ago, I read an essay of the English Dominican Vincent McNabb (1868-1943). In it, McNabb recalled his own family, his parents with eleven children, their Christmas in Ireland. The children received few gifts for Christmas. But, he thought, each of his brothers and sisters was a gift. A gift, after all, is a symbol of the giver. It’s better to have what is given. If one has many brothers and sisters, McNabb reflected, he does not need to be inundated with toys at Christmastime. In a real sense, he observed, brothers and sisters were the real “toys,” the real gifts. Their being around was more adventuresome than any mere toy. They were such a source of life and variety that one really did not need much else. Nothing is quite as interesting as one’s own brothers and sisters.

Such is a highly contentious doctrine, which, I hope, is never repeated to the population controllers who have gone a long way in depriving our kind of brothers and sisters, probably the greatest cultural loss that any civilization can know. A world of only single-child families strikes me as the definition of civilizational loneliness. A world of no brothers and sisters is a world also of no aunts and uncles, no cousins, no great-aunts and great-uncles, only parents and grandparents. It is a world in which one’s own father and mother likewise did not have brothers and sisters. The Chinese, I believe, following a “one-child policy,” a harebrained idea if there ever was one, even made it a crime to have brothers and sisters. They proceeded to destroy any brother or sister that appeared. So much for fraternité.

One might object, of course, that Christ was Himself an “only” child, an exception that proves the rule—an “only-begotten” Son cannot be begotten twice, it seems. In general, there are two kinds of “only” children among our kind—those from normal marital relationships in which only one child is given and those in which only one child, to put it delicately, is “permitted” by the parent or parents.

But my real topic here is not the size of families. Family size is, nevertheless, a question of ever-pressing importance as societies continue to gray, as the labor pool declines, and as large numbers of foreign children arrive to replace the lost brothers and sisters and, in radical ways, change the culture.

In his famous poem, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” T. S. Eliot spoke of a child’s “amazement at his first-observed Christmas tree.” (This was written before we had artificial trees, of course, though they, too, can be quite astonishing.) I recall once being in Würzburg in Germany at Christmas. The family there followed the German custom always so unsettling to safety-conscious Americans— of having live, burning candles on the freshly cut Tannenbaum. I remember, though considerably beyond childhood at the time, being quite amazed at that sight of the Christmas tree with lit, not artificial, candles dancing on it. It reminded me of a much-forgotten principle—if one knows how to do something, it is not dangerous. I think of this principle with regard to guns or shaving with a straight razor. But it also applies to the German Christmas trees with their flickering candles attached to the boughs.

“What gifts are these?” I have asked. “Whose Child is this?” the Christmas hymn sings. At Christmas, I almost always come back to the notion that the world itself, and all that is in it, including ourselves, is a gift. We simply are not the cause of our own being and cannot help but wonder what is. The world is not ultimately a product of “necessity;” even though there are necessary things in creation, once they exist. But the world does not explain itself, even less do we explain ourselves. If anyone gives an account of his existence, after noting his parentage and place and date of birth, he soon comes to the realization that he can find no account of “Why do I exist?” Our parents are just as surprised as we are by what they beget, probably more so.

The word “gift” means that something is freely presented to us that we cannot “demand.” It means that what is given need not be given. But for these very reasons, it implies something quite beyond us, almost as if to tell us that we have no real idea of what is given to us, even in the giving to us of ourselves. The central truth of our faith is that a Child is “given” to us. The fact of the givenness suggests an abundance beyond anything we might ourselves conceive. Once we understand this, like the child at first seeing the Christmas tree, we too can be properly amazed.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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