The conventional sentiment at holiday time is: “It’s so much better to give than to receive.”
There’s an awful flaw, or contradiction, in this very statement.
Think about it. It is possible to experience joy in giving … when you’re giving to someone you love or otherwise personally value, in some context. Let’s say you’re in love. Putting a smile on the face of someone you love is one of the most personally gratifying, selfish (in a good sense) joys that you can experience. It likewise applies whether you’re putting a smile on the face of your child, your parent, your best friend, or even a stranger if that brings you satisfaction or pleasure.
Taking the selfish pleasure out of the equation would, in fact, alter and cheapen the experience — both for giver and recipient.
It’s impossible to divorce or separate the experience of the giver from the giving itself. Joy on the part of the recipient implies joy on the part of the giver. To claim that giving without any reference or concern to oneself is a good thing is a total contradiction in terms. The only way to accomplish this supposed ideal would be to randomly, indiscriminately and with literally a blindfold on give to anyone or anything who happened to pass your way. How is that such a good thing?
Throwing money or lavish gifts out the window, indifferent to where, or with whom, those valuables ended up would be an obliteration of the giving process. The joy of giving necessarily includes, and inevitably implies, as much joy for the giver as the recipient.
How does a self-interested individualist celebrate a holiday like Christmas?
To my knowledge, the best answer ever given to this question was by my favorite thinker, Ayn Rand:
The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property (though it is supposed to be part, but is a largely unobserved part) of the Christian religion.
The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .
The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
At Christmas time, advocates of selfless, altruistic self-sacrifice (I can already hear the tired old Pope and President gearing up their lectures now), use it as an opportunity to exploit their claim that we should retain the spirit of mindless self-sacrifice all year long. As a result, a lot of us feel guilty when we realize we’re enjoying the spirit of Christmas in the sense Ayn Rand describes, instead of the sense in which the presiding moralist insists we take it.
Evading the fact that millions of people are enjoying Christmas precisely because of the commercial success that makes benevolence and comfort possible, they’ll use it as a chance to bash or perhaps, in a more subtle way, condemn the productive profit-seekers without whom nothing would have been produced to give as gifts in the first place. Nothing can sour the true spirit of Christmas, as a benevolent holiday, more than the guilt-inducing attempts of people we consider our proper moral authorities (and political rulers) to spout off as they do. And note that the loudest spouters of all this unearned guilt are the ones who actually produce the least (or nothing at all).
“True giving,” preachy moralists insist, “consists of expecting nothing in return.” Ridiculous. The fact that you’re giving something in the first place presupposes you’ve already benefitted from knowing or loving the person, at least if the gift is sincerely given (rather than as a duty or obligation). The best kinds of gifts are given, in fact, with no sense of an expectation for a return. But this isn’t because of self-sacrificial duty. It’s because of the personal, selfish pleasure you gain from pleasing the person who has already added to your life simply by being who he or she is.
In the end, there’s no celebrating Christmas — or anything — without loving life. And love of life implies a love of yourself. Individualism and material well-being — as much as most of us claim to hate these things — are the only way to experience holiday joy on any occasion.