Winter Gifting: Charitable Giving As Magic

Charitable giving doesn’t have to be just another box we check off at the end of the year. For pagans, it can also be a powerful act of magic.

Americans gave $484.85 billion to non-profits in 2021. The largest single source of those donations came from individuals — $326.87 billion, or 67% of total giving. And somewhere between one-third and one-fifth of those donations were made during the month of December. 

As I start to think about my own charitable giving here at the end of the year, it seems that I’m in good company. The work that I have to do before I can take action on giving — reviewing account balances, checking on retirement savings, and figuring out how much I can give — has become something of a yearly finance ritual. This year, I decided to add another dimension to this ritual by turning it into an act of magic. 

From mundane to magic

In the past, the financial support I’ve offered to different causes has been more reactive than I would have liked. My intentions were in the right place, but I treated it like a task rather than as an intentional act of connecting to the world around me. How much more effective might my giving be if it were an exercise in magic, rather than a box to be checked? This is the question I want to try and answer here.

Before I started thinking about a magical view of charitable giving, or what I now call “winter gifting,” I wanted to have as much context as possible. In my experience, magic is most effective when it’s preceded by sufficient preparation and reflection. In this case, that meant taking a look at what other pagans — and other religious traditions — might have to say about the practice of charity.

Charity in other religions

Mainstream religions provide useful reference points for thinking about charitable giving in paganism. To my mind, it’s important to contextualize my own practice of charity within the society and time in which I live. Mainstream religions — particularly Christianity — have profoundly impacted my attitude toward generosity. No matter how pagan my practice may be, there is no denying that my values and morals have been shaped by contemporary American society and the religious ideas that permeate it. 

Some mainstream religions have specific rules about charitable giving. In the Jewish community, the tradition of ma’sar kesafim calls for adherents to give away 10% of their income to support those in need, or to some other cause within the community. In Islam, the practice of zakat requires the faithful to donate 2.5% of their accumulated wealth each year. These donations are meant to support those in need or advance the faith in some way. 

Growing up in an Evangelical Christian tradition, I was taught to tithe 10% of my net income. (Christianity Today reported in 2020 that the average tithe among Evangelicals in the U.S. was actually 2.5% of net income.) Tithing to the church was not a substitute for personal charitable works to the poor, at least not in the community in which I was raised. You gave to the church and you took care of those less fortunate than yourself. Charity in this sense was seen as the personal duty of each individual, as a response to Jesus’ teachings on caring for the poor. Like most people I know, I’ve seen examples of Christian charity that were exemplary and sincere. I’ve also seen some that seemed ostentatious and self-serving.

Buddhist and Hindu traditions teach the importance of the practice of Dāna, or selfless giving. Instead of defining an amount or percentage that should be dedicated to charity, these traditions stress the importance of giving without the expectation of reciprocity. In other words, Buddhist and Hindu traditions teach that acts of generosity and compassion have merit of their own, regardless of the outcome. 

This cursory review of charity within mainstream religious traditions tells me that the practice of charitable giving is widely valued, to the point that these traditions have developed guidelines and/or requirements to ensure that adherents understand its importance and to encourage them to follow through on their commitments to care for others with financial support — not just through prayer.

Contemporary pagan views

After considering the practice of charity within mainstream religions, the next task is to assess what contemporary paganism has to say about the subject. While the teachings and practices of other religions are useful for understanding how the majority of the world’s religious adherents understand charity, these traditions offer little that can help me think about charity as an act of magic. 

The pagan community of the 21st century is decentralized and varied. Each tradition and organization has its own practices and beliefs, and each develops its own virtues and ethics. As a result, there is no single, unified source to which I can refer. Pagan communities (healthy ones, anyway) emphasize personal discernment and gnosis over orthodoxy, so much is left to the individual when it comes to determining what constitutes the path of right action. 

Despite these variations and the lack of a structured, centralized value system, we can find some insights into contemporary pagan views on charitable giving. For example, the website for the Wiccan community Circle Sanctuary states that one of their spiritual principles is to “live life in consideration of others as well as oneself, endeavoring to be of service and to do no harm.” Their website also provides a list of virtues that includes “responsibility, balance, empathy, kindness, service, and freedom.” 

Similarly, the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (OBOD) includes a brief article titled “The Web of Life and the Illusion of Separateness.” It reads, in part: 

Woven into much of Druid thinking and all of its practice is the idea or belief that we are all connected in a universe that is essentially benign – that we do not exist as isolated beings who must fight to survive in a cruel world. Instead we are seen as part of a great web or fabric of life that includes every living creature and all of Creation. This is essentially a pantheistic view of life, which sees all of Nature as sacred and as interconnected.

Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids

According to OBOD’s druid philosophy, all life is divine and all life is interdependent. Although there is no specific mention of an obligation or duty to give to others, charity could be interpreted as a manifestation of the recognition of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life. 

Finally, some forms of contemporary Heathenism and other pagan traditions list “hospitality” among their virtues, although whether or not these interpretations of hospitality include what I am referring to as charity is a debate I will leave to those who specialize in these areas.

Charity among the ancient pagans

Up to this point I’ve considered what contemporary religious traditions have to say about charitable giving. Some mainstream religious traditions have well-defined attitudes toward charitable giving. Contemporary pagan communities take a less direct stance: charitable giving may fit into pagan value systems, but there are typically no established requirements or expectations. But what about our pagan ancestors? 

As with so many other questions about the ancient pagans, we have little in the way of reliable, first hand information. Most pagan peoples left few or no written records; what we have instead are second hand accounts of their practices and beliefs, supplemented by later medieval writings. In both cases the materials available to us are sometimes removed from the people and cultures they describe by many centuries, and very often they involve conjecture, bias, romanticization, or outright fabrication. 

Despite these challenges, there is still value in trying to understand what we can about pagan views on charitable giving. Of course, the term “pagan” is a massive umbrella under which there are many different traditions and paths, from all over the world. I have narrowed my focus to that which is most relevant to my own practice: paganism within the context of Indo-European cultures. 

For those unfamiliar, I am a member of the ADF druid community. ADF (which is the acronym for Ár nDraíocht Féin or “our own magic”) is distinct from other druid traditions. Rather than focusing exclusively on Celtic cultures and history (as other druid traditions do) we draw wisdom and inspiration from many wells in the Indo-European family of cultures. This includes Celtic, Greek, Slavic, Roman, Vedic, and Germanic cultures. 

The people of these cultural groups spoke languages that derive from a common Indo-European (IE) source. That tells us that, at some point, these cultures likely shared a common world-view and value system. So it’s worth the effort to consider how our ancient Indo-European ancestors might have viewed acts of charitable giving.

Charity in Indo-European society

Indo-European cosmology — to the degree that we can discern it from linguistic studies — is at the core of our beliefs and practices in ADF Druidry. Understanding what the ancient Indo-Europeans may have thought about the idea of charity means relying on theories about IE culture that derive from linguistic evidence as it appears in reconstructions of the Indo-European language. 

One of the resources I rely on for such insights is the work of writer Ceisiwr Serith, who has proposed what he refers to as a “Proto-Indo-European” system of belief. In other words, a religion that reflects the common elements of the different cultural traditions we recognize as Indo-European in origin. 

In Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, Serith describes a cosmology in which the world (reality) is defined/maintained by the perpetual tension between the primordial forces of Chaos (disorder) and Cosmos (order). Both Chaos and Cosmos are necessary to maintain the world: the trick is that they have to coexist in the right proportions. 

When the correct ratio of order-to-chaos is achieved, life is sustained. Cosmos provides necessary structure and stability, while Chaos prevents rigidity and stagnation. In Serith’s view, the interaction between Cosmos and Chaos is one of continual movement. To be more precise, it is a type of exchange.

Think of a typical forest ecosystem in which decaying matter nourishes plants and animals, which eventually die and produce more decaying matter that feeds the next cycle of forest growth. This state of constant, cyclical change is necessary to maintain *Xártus,” or what Serith describes as “the living structure of the Cosmos.” (34)

In Serith’s words: 

There is therefore an exchange occurring at the heart of the Cosmos. Cosmos gives to Chaos, Chaos gives to Cosmos. It is through this exchange that the very existence of our Cosmos is assured. This exchange is the very basis for the order in which we live our lives. This exchange, particularly its reciprocity, is a representation of the central truth of Indo-European religion: a gift demands a gift.

Deep Ancestors, 34

Put another way, the world is the result of the never ending cycle of exchange between Cosmos and Chaos. For humans, this concept of exchange is mirrored in the *ghosti relationship. *Ghosti is a reconstructed Indo-European word that implies reciprocity and hospitality between people. What might be considered nothing more than “good manners” or “the right thing to do” by contemporary society apparently had a much deeper meaning among the Indo-Europeans. 

In Serith’s theory, humans have an important role to play in maintaining the Cosmos. He writes that humans can “contribute to this process [of maintaining the *Xártus] by actions, especially ritual ones…(34). The practice of reciprocity that occurs in the *ghosti relationship means becoming an active participant in the cosmic cycle. If the concept of charitable giving is compatible with this practice of reciprocity, then the act of charity itself takes on profound significance. Simply put: charity can itself be a ritual or magical act.

This is precisely what Serith proposes later in his book. He claims that our Proto-Indo-European ancestors saw charity as a virtue and that the practice of charity is both part of the *Xártus and a natural extension of the virtue of hospitality that appears in later Indo-European cultures. Serith also finds something similar to the concept of noblesse oblige in the PIE worldview:

This is the model for Indo-European charity. We are obliged to share our wealth. We are obligated to help strangers as well as those we know. So important is this model that the Proto-Indo-European deity who enforces charity is Dyēus Pater, the highest of the gods. Thus we have Zeus Xenios, “Zeus of the Stranger” who enforces our relationships with those not of our kin group. Charity is in the hands of the enforcer of natural order because it is part of the natural order.

Deep Ancestors, 43

How accurately Serith’s theory reflects the reality of our Indo-European ancestors’ belief systems is a question outside the scope of this essay. The value of Serith’s theory is that it provides critical insight into how charity can be seen as a magical act — by sustaining *Xártus and emulating the reciprocal relationship between Cosmos and Chaos. 

Charity in ADF Druidry

Now that we have at least a theoretical basis for thinking about charity as a ritual or magical act, the next task is to move from theory to application, from the abstract to the concrete. To do so, I will now turn to the wisdom and practices of my own pagan community.

The values and theology of ADF Druidry are based on what we know (or think we know) about Indo-European culture and beliefs. We also supplement what we know about the Indo-Europeans with history, philosophy, science, and our own life experiences. The clearest expression of this synthesis can be found in the nine virtues our community recognizes. Of these, three are particularly relevant for understanding how charity might fit into our value system. These are piety, vision, and fertility.

Piety

Correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.

While it is tempting to view this virtue solely as it pertains to ritual actions and our relationships to deities and spirits, it is also possible to see how piety can be interpreted to include a responsibility to care for others. For example, “social traditions” could include the concept of noblesse oblige, while “keeping the old ways” might also be seen a call to maintain social relationships through reciprocity, especially since the concept of *ghosti anchors our ritual structure.

Vision

The ability to broaden one’s perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present, and future. 

The virtue of vision challenges the druid to deepen their awareness and see the patterns and connections inherent in the webs of life and time. By perceiving reality beyond our own identities and needs, we are empowered to become more effective agents of change in the world. Charitable giving is a concrete manifestation of the ability to recognize the needs of others and to solve problems that may not impact us directly or immediately. It can also be a way of acknowledging our roles as the ancestors of the future.

Fertility

Bounty of mind, body, and spirit, involving creativity and industry, an appreciation of the physical and sensual; nurturing these qualities in others. 

Once upon a time, some Romans observed that druids liked to hang out in the woods. Ever since then, the term “druid” has been inextricably connected to trees, forests, and wildernesses. This image of the druid as the wise forest guardian and perennial flower child is composed from a mixture of historical record and romanticism. It’s a powerful archetype that almost every druid I know embraces and emulates. I hope we keep it up.

If druids are anything, we are cultivators and caretakers who find magic in the world around us. Most of the druids I know hold a deep reverence for nature and understand the importance of sharing resources. Acts of charity help us build a world where others have opportunities to be creative and productive, and in which everyone can enjoy the pleasures of the world. Charitable giving allows us to fully inhabit our roles of nourishers, healers, and stewards.

Charitable giving as magical work

Charitable giving is an annual winter time custom for many people. For some, it’s our last chance to claim a tax write off before the end of the fiscal year. For others, it’s something we do because December is “the season of giving.” In other words, the December holidays are a time of generosity that — while primarily concerned with gifting our loved ones — may also extend to those outside our families or kin groups. 

We pagans have an opportunity here. Rather than simply going through the motions of giving our money or time to causes and organizations we support out of habit (or guilt), we can transform our charitable giving into works of magic. By giving what we can, we are shaping the future world and sustaining the proper order of things, what our Indo-European ancestors may have conceived as *Xártus. We are making good on our promises to uphold the virtues defined by our pagan communities and demonstrating that generosity can be inspired by wisdom traditions that exist outside the mainstream. 

How do we do it? The same way we perform any other act of magic — by focusing our energies and directing our intention. We make our winter gifting magical by recognizing that when we give to the causes and organizations near to our hearts, we are taking actions that reverberate throughout time and cosmos and reinforce the web of interconnectedness that is central to the pagan way of life. 

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved. This content may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from the author.

Author: Benjamin Babb

Writer, expert biscuit maker, and Enya superfan. I'm into ghost stories, trees, and supporting LGBTQ visibility.

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