The Joy of Alternative Giving

Archives: Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? #5

The Joy of Alternative Giving

by Mark L. Yackel-Juleen

God loves a cheerful giver." (II Corinthians 9:7)

Fair enough. Who loves a grumpy one? For that matter, who loves a begrudging, or frustrated, or an anxiety-ridden giver? And who wants to give gifts in that spirit, anyway? Yet as the Christmas season draws near, many of us are anything but "cheerful." Grated by the pressures to "cover the list," fulfill the TV-induced fad fantasies of children, and pay the bills, one can lose the cheer and joy of giving.

As Advent reached its second Sunday each year, a pastor friend of mine always slipped into a foul mood. His spouse finally called it to his attention - Was he over-worked by the season or just a scrooge in a clerical collar? When they discussed it, they discovered he was plagued by the commercialization of Christmas. While this pastor attempted to proclaim the wonder of God's coming in the cry of a tiny baby in Bethlehem, he was outdone by a culture that was screaming at the top of its lungs, "BUY! BUY! BUY!" Some of that noise even found its way into his own home. But what could he do?

God wants and encourages giving. However, God's word also makes clear that what we give, how we give, and to whom we give is important as well. By taking a fresh look at our giving traditions and trying some alternatives, we can help bring the cheer back into giving.


Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The disgruntled pastor I spoke of encouraged his family to change the focus of their celebrations by modifying their giving traditions. Advent became their time for planning financial gifts to special causes. In mid-December, the family decided which causes to support and how much to give to each cause. This tradition changed the family's attitude toward Christmas and, as the children grew and started their own families, they continued this giving tradition with the next generation.


Give It Again!

Make Advent a time to recycle. Go through your closets and sort out items you don't need. Used clothing, kitchen utensils, books and toys are a treasure to those who are going without. Check with your church for names of agencies which collect and distribute donated items to those in need.


Give of Yourself

Give your time. In our busy world, we often neglect to spend time with those who need us. Giving a few hours of your time can be a wonderful gift to family, friends, and those less fortunate. Schedule an afternoon to help an elderly person plant a flower garden. Plan a day to do anything your child wants to do. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

Make your own gifts. At one time making gifts was a tradition. Today we often overlook this opportunity to give something truly personal. Each year, my family receives a supply of hand-dipped candles from one of our relatives. Not only is the gift useful and inexpensive, it represents the special talent of the giver. Many of us have special talents - gifts from God - which we underestimate. By giving something you have created, you give of yourself and you avoid the sterility of our mass-produced, plastic-oriented culture. Start planning and making gifts early.

If sending Christmas cards has become one of your annual traditions, consider creating your own unique cards. Homemade cards are a gift in themselves. You don't need to be an artist. With a few supplies and some imagination, you can create very meaningful cards. And by writing your own message, you can express what you want to say about Christmas. Start early so you can do this at your leisure and not add a burden to the busy season. Buy your envelopes first and make cards to fit the envelopes.


Let's Celebrate

Parties and family gatherings are a traditional part of many Christmas celebrations. Instead of purchasing gifts for these occasions, plan a potluck meal where each person brings a gift of food. You can also have a cookie exchange where each person or family makes enough of one kind of cookie to give a half-dozen to each person. Everyone at the gathering is able to take home a wide variety of cookies, and part of your holiday baking chore is over!

I have been to parties where the guests shared a talent or skill, a hobby, a favorite family recipe, a special memory, or a favorite poem or reading. Everyone had great fun learning interesting things about each other. You can also incorporate a particular cause into the party's theme, encouraging people to give gifts to the cause rather than to each other.


Gift-giving and Children

What do our Christmas traditions communicate to children about the meaning of Christmas and their identity as Christians? Do our traditions focus on "What am I going to get?" The quantity of gifts a child receives can affect how he/she views Christmas.

The kinds of gifts we give children also communicate the meaning of Christmas. War toys and other violent toys are inappropriate gifts to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Give gifts which stimulate creativity, promote growth, and encourage sharing and cooperation. You may need to explain to friends and relatives honestly, but tactfully, why you feel violent toys are inappropriate. You should also be prepared to offer suggestions of alternatives. Of course, to make a real difference you must also limit your child's exposure to television commercials and other advertising.

We can communicate the true meaning of Christmas by modifying our traditions. What would a child learn about Christmas if there were fewer material gifts for "each other" under the tree and more gifts for others, like a box of clothes for the clothing bank or some toys for needy children?

You can teach children the real meaning of Christmas by involving them in alternative giving projects. As early as age three, Margaret and I told our son of children who did not have enough food, clothes, or toys. He understood we could give things which would help them. By four, on his own initiative, he would sort through his toys and choose those he wanted to give away.

Around Thanksgiving, make a list of possible alternative giving projects and encourage children to choose one. Suggest projects which benefit other children and ones which involve tangible items (giving food, clothing, or toys rather than money), especially if very young children are involved.

Let the children follow the project through to the end. If possible, encourage them to deliver the gift personally. Finally, help them make the connection between alternative giving and their faith by saying, "We are doing this because Jesus was born to love all people and he wants us to help people who are poor, homeless, hungry. . ."


Make Alternative Giving a Tradition

Giving is supposed to be fun. By trying a few of these or other alternatives, you can recapture the cheer and true meaning of Christmas giving. Some of these suggestions might even become new family traditions!



Mark L. Yackel-Juleen is an ELCA pastor serving First Lutheran Church (Dundee, MN) and Grace Lutheran Church (rural Worthington, MN).

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