Christmas time approaches, the season for giving, the season when people’s inclination toward charitable acts and other good works reaches its apogee. Preparations for the holiday are well under way, and at shopping centers and street corners everywhere, one sees those red kettles, a veritable symbol of the season, almost as ubiquitous as Christmas trees, holly, and colored lights. Christmas engenders a unique spirit in our hearts. As the great American author and essayist Washington Irving said, “Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.”
Americans are renown for their charitable giving. They support a vast network of charitable organizations, having given $290.89 billion in 2010. Additionally, 63.4 million Americans have practiced another form of charity by volunteering 8.1 billion hours of their time to help fellow Americans in need or improve their communities. It is estimated that the dollar value of that volunteer work is $169 billion. Americans are indeed a generous people. Moreover, Americans have been generous to those in need since the first settlers arrived on these shores.
Those English men and women who first arrived in the New World were confronted by difficulties few of them could have imagined when they left the country of their birth. In those early years, harshness of weather, crop failures, and outbreaks of disease often decimated the colonists, huddled in their tiny beachheads on the east coast of the strange new continent. They endured these rigors through extreme hard work and through close fellowship. There were no “safety nets,” save their own courage, tenacity, and solidarity. It was one for all and all for one. Colonists nursed sick neighbors back to health, provided sustenance to one another in times of dearth, and built houses and barns for neighbors in need. Their motto, so to speak, came straight from Holy Scripture: “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” By that injunction did these early settlements in New England and Virginia suffer those first years and live on to prosper. “Love thy neighbor” was the rule and remained the basis for charitable acts throughout those colonial times.