TCS Daily

A Christmas Gift

By Tim Worstall - December 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Santa's coming, the presents are being wrapped and we all dredge our minds for the answer to the question "What do you want for Christmas?", that dread query from our nearest and dearest. Marriage means that the answer "The Rockettes" is no longer acceptable and advancing age means their arrival would be somewhat without purpose, whatever the wonders of modern chemistry. There are no pressing requirements or desires for physical goods (still working on the drawer of socks from the famous Christmas of 1986, a particularly fine year for that commodity) and the Tiny Tim Memorial stone carving kit seems to be sold out so, what to ask for, what to wish the elves to construct?

Peace on earth and mercy mild would be good, for the Catholic to sit down with the Protestant, the Muslim with the Jew, for the ACLU to allow again children to sing Stille Nacht, for crime and hatred to vanish from the earth, even, if I am allowed to say it, for our Saviour to return and rescue us from this vale of tears. Yet I have a feeling that these are not things that are achieved by one Englishman wishing for them, nor are they things bolted together at the North Pole and left in stockings across the land. However much I might wish for them (and I do, all of them, devoutly,) my desires will have little effect on the outcome. Mulling over this I was rather abashed to come across this little story of an earlier fellow countryman's response:

"In December 1948 a Washington radio station telephoned various ambassadors in the capital and asked what each would like for Christmas. Their replies were duly recorded and broadcast in a special programme the following week. "Peace throughout the world," the French Ambassador requested. "Freedom for all people enslaved by imperialism," his Soviet counterpart intoned ... Then came the voice of the British Ambassador, Sir Oliver Franks: "Well, it's very kind of you to ask," he politely remarked. "I'd quite like a box of crystallized fruit."
[Source: Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Diplomats] "

Not just the drollery of the response, I am impressed by the wish for something actually achievable, something that can indeed be provided in this imperfect world. A fleeting and transient pleasure perhaps, but a real one, not a pious incantation of what we are supposed to want, those impossible dreams, castles in the sky which will never be reached.

I think that I actually got my present a couple of days early, this morning in fact. A West African gentleman appeared to be having problems using an ATM machine and various bystanders offered to help. The problem was that we seemed to have no language in common with him, he not speaking Portuguese (the language of the country where I am, it being Portugal), nor most people's second language that of English. There was a complete absence of Ibo, Yoruba or such speakers on the street, one German speaker got no response, my Russian was met (rightly, given my accent) with blank stares and then it was discovered that he had some basic French. Hurried conversations in both Portuguese and English established that my schoolboy French, learnt some time in the past millennium, was going to be the only effective, if tortuous, method of communication.

Eventually our intrepid traveler was able to claim his money and go on his way, the rest of us dispersing after this trivial incident of a few minutes duration. Why do I mention such a story, why consider it a Christmas present? Certainly not to advertise my own actions, for this curmudgeon was motivated only by being at the back of a very slow moving queue at the only operating cash machine in town. Solving the man's problem was in my direct interest, not my altruistic one. No, the present was being reminded of what, at times, charitable souls average humans are. We were all strangers, no one had met before or likely would again. Apart from my own selfish motives all were guided by a desire to help a fellow in a modicum of difficulty, for no payback other than the joy of being able to help him.

We're all aware of the evil that resides within men's souls, the wars, genocides, cruelties, the Democratic Party and the designated hitter rule, but to be reminded that there is another side, that there is a goodness, a charity and concern for our compatriots, that so often the response of a human is to aid another, for no reason other than that shared humanity, well, yes, I'll accept that as a Christmas present, and an extremely valuable one as well. I believe that the man whose arrival we celebrate tomorrow had a number of things to say on such subjects as well but let's not drag too much religion into this, eh? Never know when the ACLU will argue that as the internet was developed with public funds (at the instigation of Al Gore I believe. Whatever happened to him?) then religion must not be allowed to intrude upon it.

So that's what I would like for Christmas, a few repeats of this morning's little episode. Nothing too flash or difficult, just the average man and woman in the street acting a little more on the motivations of the good side of human nature and I'll even throw in an offer to try and do it myself a bit more often.

As these are things that Santa does not deliver, matters for ourselves to create rather than elves to construct, I'll also be checking my stocking in the morning for that small box of crystallized fruit. I know I addressed the letter properly and made absolutely certain that my wife saw it before it was sent.

Merry Christmas.


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