I think the movie, Elf, is pretty hilarious. Will Ferrell’s “Buddy” character marching off to New York from the North Pole, enjoying syrup (actually whiskey) in coffee, eating cotton balls, outing a fake Santa, and sleeping in a store’s window display carry a lot of laughs. It’s no wonder it’s become a Christmas staple. But there’s something that has always bothered me about that movie.

We find out that Santa’s sleigh requires a jet engine in order to fly because Christmas spirit, once the sole motive power for Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, is on a low ebb. Christmas spirit is restored by Buddy’s half-brother reading Santa’s gift list, with the receivers of the gifts-to-be evidently getting warm Christmas spirit fuzzies on learning they will receive what they want. In other words, Elf turns Christmas into the Season of Receiving rather than its classic meaning, which is the Season of Giving.

This is nothing new, really. Miracle on 34th Street, a constantly remade Christmas classic, tells the story of a self-absorbed little girl with a self-absorbed mother who discover a kind old man calling himself Kris Kringle who manages to make sure people get what they want. The mom and girl are never really believers until the very end, when Kris evidently manages to bring the mother and her love interest together, along with the dream house of the little girl. Again, getting is what it’s all about.

But Christmas is about giving.

Liberals/progressives sound like quite the givers. After all, it’s progressives who want everybody to have free health care, free college educations, and any number of other things, all provided by government. But some understand what giving is all about better than others, and live it out on a daily basis better than others, too. In Who Really Cares, a book published in 2006, Arthur C. Brooks demonstrates that religious conservatives tend to be much more generous than secular liberals (progressives). That doesn’t mean liberals/progressives give nothing freely to others. Brooks simply found that they are not nearly as generous as their rhetoric would seem to indicate.

The problem with the vision of progressives as generous givers because of the policies they advocate is that those policies aren’t giving at all. Progressive policies remind me of the man who answers the door, assumes a stranger who was knocking is there to collect for a charity and says, “I gave at the office” as a way of avoiding any giving. Progressives “give on the tax form” but it’s never just their money they’re “giving.” If progressives decide college should be free, they appear less inclined to endow scholarships than they are to force everyone else to “give” the money for “free” educations through government taxation and spending. The same is true of “free” health care, “free” food, and anything else progressives decide is important enough that everyone should have it.

Progressives seem willfully ignorant of how we all benefit from voluntarily exchanging with each other, whether we’re telling each other “Thank you” after exchanging $2.50 for a Dr. Pepper in a convenience store, or telling each other “Thank you” after exchanging $2,500 for a procedure at a hospital. Both sides benefit from a transaction freely entered into. “Giving” through government involves one party being forced to contribute (pay taxes or go to jail) and the other side feeling entitled to the benefits of the government program, which never seem to be enough. It’s resentment on both sides.

Unfortunately, political progressives seem to feed off resentment. They portray those of us who prefer freely-entered exchanges as cruel Scrooges, who would rather see Tiny Tim die for lack of an operation than spend a penny on coal. But the lesson of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the redemptive power of voluntary generosity. In the end, Scrooge is not forced to do better by his faithful assistant, who never fails to earn his every shilling; Scrooge isn’t forced to pay for Tiny Tim’s operation. Scrooge is redeemed and has a better life because he becomes more generous of his own volition.

So this Christmas season, I am reminded that it is about giving. Before we Christians took it over, it was about nature giving back with the increasing warmth of longer days. Now, it is about a Holy God humbling Himself, ultimately to a painful and unjust death, to guide us to His bosom. Let us renew our spirit to truly do for each other. If an elected official, let us truly do that which is best for our communities. If a service provider, let us do the best quality work for our clients. If a goods producer, let us make our products the best they can be. If a buyer, let us expect no more than what is just for what we are willing to pay. And let us all enjoy the fruits of each other’s daily generosity.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.