Christmas Spirit

It's been sad to listen to various people complain about the upcoming holidays.  It honestly seems as though it's more hardship and work for most people than joy and happiness, which I think is sad.  There are complaints about the over-commercialization of Christmas and how it's all about presents, yet they shop constantly for months to buy things they proclaim they cannot afford (or go into debt to obtain) to give to kids who complain about not getting enough or to give to family members they hardly know (so had to struggle to find that "meaningful personal gift" for them).  There are complaints about traffic and how expensive things are and how what they want to buy is sold out.   I once commented that the easiest way to beat the over-commercialization problem is to stop giving into it and stop buying everybody everything they want.  Pointing out that Christmas isn't about presents yielded angry or pitying stares.  I shrugged and explained that in my family holidays are about spending time with each other, not about going broke buying stuff for people. Yes, we exchange gifts, but it's the time we spend together that is the focus of the season.  This seems to be a foreign concept.  Co-workers stated they had to get their kids what they wanted for Christmas or everyone would be unhappy.  I refrained from pointing out that giving in to these demands is a) teaching a sense of entitlement to the kids and b) perpetuating the commercialization cycle. 

 So what do I think reflects the Christmas spirit? Yes, gift giving is part of it.  To me it does not mean getting presents myself.  I have no outstanding needs for stuff.  I have a house full of too much stuff, actually.  I'd rather that people took money they'd spend on gifts for me and donate it to charity where would go to people with real needs.  Yes, I do purchase gifts for my immediate family members.  No, we don't happen to exchange gifts with any and all relatives still alive.  If we happen to get extended family members together for holidays, we have a couple of meals together and spend time hanging out, catching up on each other's lives and discussing current events.  That means a whole lot more to us than having to struggle to figure out what someone we rarely see might want in their home. It seems to result in less stress and more enjoyment of the holiday.  Moreover, our time and energy is spent where it is truly more important--with each other.  The Christmas Spirit to me means spending time with family and friends--talking, sharing meals, playing board games, doing jigsaw puzzles, cooking, going to movies, going to museums. 

My gift giving is all done on a budget.  I refuse to go into debt to buy stuff for anybody, whether it's me or someone else.  Yes, that means I'm unlikely to buy anybody a 50" flat screen TV.  So far that hasn't been a problem.  I can't imagine what it must be like to have family members demand gifts that one cannot afford to buy, particularly when the demanders are adults.  Perhaps this holiday greed could be addressed by teaching immediate family members about the family budget and where the money goes. Certainly that's an important lesson for children to learn anyway since they will have to learn to manage their own money.

For all that I appear to be a stingy Grinch about gifts, I would like to point out that in addition to purchasing gifts for my immediate family members, I also make charitable donations in the name of those same family members this time each year.  To me, giving to those who NEED basic necessities (no, the latest Transformer or latest game cartridge is not a necessity) is what Christmas giving is all about.  Here are a few of the places to which I like to give and either have or will give this season:

Alyssa Milano's Birthday Charity Campaign
I happen to follow actor Nathan Fillion on Twitter.  The morning of December 7th he tweeted this:
"It is @Alyssa_Milano's Birthday on the 19th. All she wants is this: Imagine $1 from half of you. Love you all."

"This" is charity: water, a program that is working to provide safe, clean drinking water to people around the world.  One in eight people on this planet don't have access to clean drinking water. They fund sustainable clean water solutions in areas of greatest need and 100% of the money raised goes toward direct program costs.  Did you know that just $20 can provide one person in a developing nation with clean water for 20 years?  How's that for a screaming deal on value?  Sure beats the pants off anything you'll find at the mall!!

The evening of December 7th, Mr. Fillion tweeted this:
"Today, had it's highest fundraising day ever. Because of you. Over 1000 people with water. I said I wasn't gonna cry-!"

He later re-tweeted the following message from Ms. Milano:
"RT@NathanFillion Thank you, Nathan. I ♥ you. I appreciate you and all you do for me. (via @Alyssa_Milano) -Waiting since age 9 to hear this!"

I think I know where my birthday money will go this year....

(Update 12/22: Ms. Milano set an initial goal of $37,000 which was met within a week. She then picked $50,000, which was again met rather handily.  The final goal was $75,000.  As of today, $83,356 has been given as part of her fund drive and there are still 5 days left in the campaign.)

This time of year, food collection boxes can be pretty common. Conveniently, there are also some pretty good sales on non-perishable foods at most grocery stores and supermarkets.  For under $20, I picked up 4 boxes of spaghetti, 4 cans of Hunts pasta sauce and a dozen cans of vegetables.  From my pantry, I added a box of non-fat dry milk, flour, canned soup and granola bars.  I had fun loading up my cart too.  (Since I sometimes feel the need to buy things I don't actually need, I might as well buy things that someone else can need, turning my bad habit into something useful for someone else.) On the way to the car with my purchases, I decided that since I am fortunate to have plenty to eat, there is absolutely no reason why I couldn't spend a week's worth of grocery money on the food bank every month, not just in December.  I'll just adjust my own grocery purchases a bit. It won't hurt me (or my pants size) to eat a little less and it'll definitely help others to have a little more.

Need to find a food bank near you to donate food or your time? Try the Feeding America website (formerly known as America's Second Harvest).

(Update 12/22/09: My best friend Twitchh went to the grocery store today with the specific purpose of loading up a shopping cart full of food to take to the food bank.  Earlier in the day, he'd called the food bank and asked if they had any specific needs and if they would accept produce items.  The reply was that they could use hams and that they would indeed take produce, perishable and even frozen items.  Twitchh loaded up a cart with hams, salmon filets, tangerines, apples, potatoes and a carton of bananas, then dropped it all off at the food bank on the way to work. How cool is that?!?!?)

The Heifer Project
Once again this year, I "purchased" farm animals for my family members.  Last year I bought several flocks of chicks.  This year I decided to buy a sheep.  What else do you get someone who already has everything and really doesn't need more stuff in their house?  Everybody thought it was a really neat idea even if it meant not having as many Christmas presents themselves.  Even my niece and nephew thought that getting chicks for people who needed eggs and food was a good idea.  This year we'll talk about what sheep can provide to a family or community.

Before you start commenting about it, yes, I am aware that my purchase of a sheep doesn't actually  mean that someone really gets a sheep.  It's a symbolic representation of where the money I donate may go.  I'm fine with that.  It's that the money goes and does good.  That's what is important to me.  I could care less whether it gets there in the form of a pig, a cow, honeybees or ducks.  And I've still got my sights set on the day I can send an Ark on an annual basis.

The Christmas Spirit means giving to others who have less than me.  Giving to others who lack basic necessities of safe food and water, warm clothing and shelter.  No, I cannot guarantee that everything I give will be used only for those persons in need and I don't get proof that my donation has made a change for any individual.  I do research on the organizations to which I donate to evaluate the percentage of donations that are used for administrative purposes and pick organizations that strive to keep that percentage small.  The rest I leave to faith.  I believe that my donation goes where it is needed and I repeat a little mantra ("This donation will make someone's life easier and let them know someone cares.") when I write out my check or collect goods for donation.  That's good enough for me.

So, what if you don't have the money to make extra charitable donations?  I've been in that position before.  In fact, being able to make charitable donations of money is a relatively new, albeit growing, occurrence in my life.  Why not donate your time?  Volunteer at the food bank a couple times a month.  Volunteer at the local domestic violence shelter.  Call your local United Way office and see if they can match you with a volunteer opportunity that utilizes your skills.  Too busy?  Really?  Try writing down on a piece of paper how you spend your time each hour of each day for a week.  How much time do you spend watching TV or surfing the internet?  How much time do you spend poking around the house not doing much?  I'm willing to bet you can find an hour or two a week a couple times a month to help others and to make the world a better place.  What's stopping you?


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