Gratitude, it’s been observed, is a hallmark conservative virtue.

We prize the heritage passed down to us through the generations. We look beyond ourselves to the wisdom of the ages to shape our outlook and to the enduring principles of America’s founding to ground our decisions today.

Gratitude for what we’ve received makes us respond by giving, especially at this season. This year, the season of gifts is particularly poignant, as Heritage research fellow Ryan Messmore writes in an op-ed this week:

Christmastime is a season of gratitude.  Whether it’s because we reflect upon the birth of the Christ child or the blessings of the past year, the holiday often prompts a sense of appreciation and thankfulness as well as the tradition of gift-giving.

And this year, the season of giving and receiving gifts comes in sharp contrast to a succession of months pervaded with a sense of entitlement.

The politics of resentment has characterized much of 2011. It’s been fueled by an entitlement mentality that “threatens not only the spirit of Christmas but the very fabric of a just and prosperous society,” Messmore says.

That’s because the entitlement mentality makes an ever-increasing list of claims that government must fulfill, from jobs to health care to freedom from college debt. This “government-owes-me” attitude abandons principles of personal responsibility and mutual responsibility through civil society, that is, through the relationships forged in family, congregation, and community.

But the more Americans look to government to provide for our welfare, the more it weakens these civil society bonds. That’s bad news for good governance, and bad news for our welfare. As the data on Heritage’s FamilyFacts.org site shows, family and religious practice secure our individual and common good as no government program can do.

Christmas is a season that calls us back to these permanent things. Its music and traditions appeal to us to restore our commitment to family and faith.

Perhaps there’s no better example than the shared musical experience of Handel’s “Messiah,” which continues to draw our attention 270 years after it was written. Why do we continue to stop and listen after almost three centuries? As I wrote in an op-ed this week:

Together, the music and subject of Handel’s “Messiah” reach the sublime status of great art that speaks to “what is permanent in the human soul,” as the 19th-century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote. …

Master artists and authors create a “unity and profoundness of moral impression,” Arnold wrote, “which constitutes the grandeur of their works, and which makes them immortal.”

That kind of moral impression is grounded in the conviction that human nature persists, truth exists and life has meaning and purpose. Such courage of conviction has been waning for some time.

Instead, relativism has crept into education and other cultural forums, undermining confidence in standards that transcend our own frame of reference. Among other negative results, this cheats young people of the gratitude that appropriately respects the wisdom of the past, the very gratitude that would inoculate against developing an entitlement mentality.

As we seek to renew America, that makes the lessons of Christmas all the more important. Messmore sums up our Christmas wish:

As we celebrate the holidays, let’s give thanks for–and diligently protect–our God-given rights.  But let’s also pay attention to the dynamics that play out with the giving and receiving of presents.

This is a season for reflecting especially on gifts of grace–blessings to which we aren’t necessarily entitled.  May gratitude move us to give freely and generously to others in the New Year.

- Jennifer Marshall is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.

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