Most every Christmas — okay, *every* Christmas, so far — I have been stressed out and overwhelmed. Every Christmas I vow not to do it. Every Christmas, I do. Oh, I start out with the best of intentions. I make a detailed list, not only for gifts, but also for cards. I study the catalogs as if I were studying for the final exam of my life. I discuss it all calmly and rationally with Art. I make sure to learn the identity of the adult whom I will gift in Art’s family early. Like, right after Thanksgiving dinner. I plan for the lights, the tree, and I buy plenty of Christmas wrapping paper. I brave the madhouse of malls and department stores, driving in endless circles looking for a parking space. I scour the stores for those elusive perfect gifts (which are never right, anyway). Every year the holidays become,”an orgy of excess and waste”, to quote our president-elect. (Anyway, I think I got that quote right).
Every year on December 25th, right after the exchange of our gifts, Art brings in a big black trash bag. Out go the beautiful ribbons and bows, the artful wrappings, the raffia and tissue paper, a couple of rolls of Scotch tape, and the mountains of boxes are, at least, recycled.
The gifts are always thoughtful, lovely, and certainly appreciated. But while we sip our Christmas tea while gazing into the 5,000 watts of electric lights and staring at our beautiful gas-lit fireplace — while the radio brings us “Away in the Manger no room for a bed. . .” or “The Little Drummer Boy”, I think about all of the people whose Christmas will be anything but merry. Then the guilt begins.
On top of the stress of the holidays that everyone talks about ad nauseum, I have a little green Christmas monster. I hear his whiny little ET voice: “You are so lucky and blessed. What have you given to the needy, to promote the cause of peace, to help save the planet. Well???”. I picture this little monster tapping its tiny feet, its green arms crossed over its chest, its mouth scowling as it waits for a reply. (I take it as a rhetorical question so that I don’t have to answer). Usually in the week between Christmas and New Years, I put on a good five pounds trying to stuff down the little critter with pumpkin pie and egg nog. And then I make my one consistent New Year’s resolution: Next year I will make charitable donations instead of buying way too many expensive and unnecessary gifts. Next year I will celebrate in a more responsible and compassionate way.
So yesterday I was staring at the great pile of catalogs on our coffee table. (Never mind that I have been steadily trying to stop them from coming in the mail. They continue at an alarming rate! One catalog company stops sending, but a new one always comes to take its place. One company spawns another company, and now instead of one catalog, I have two). But sandwiched between Land’s End and Plow and Hearth, obscured by Pottery Barn on top and Herrington and LL Bean and Lord knows what else, I found a very slim catalog with a picture of a llama on the front. It proudly announces itself as “The Most Important Gift Catalog In The World”. If I had blinked, I might have missed it. This is the Heifer International catalog.
The idea is simple: This organization provides farm animals, as well as much needed tree seedlings and honeybees, along with education for needy communities around the world. By providing families with such valuable resources, many people can lift themselves out of abject poverty. In turn, for example, if a family’s donated goat gives birth, the new kids can be donated to a neighbor, and so forth. What a wonderful gift! You can buy a “share” of a goat or a “share” of a tree seedling for $10.00. (You can find them on the Web at www.heifer.org/catalog).
There are many other worthy causes that have programs for sending holiday gifts to loved ones. I am especially drawn to Unicef, whose mission is to care for needy children all over the world. Unicef has gift “tribute cards”. Each card costs $25.00, but if your budget is tight, or you have too many people on your list, you can buy a package of five cards for only $75.00, which comes out to $15.00 each. (I did the math — which is saying something for me!). They also have more tangible gifts available on their Web site that help support needy children. You can find Unicef on the Web at www.unicefusa.org.
Oh, don’t get me wrong — There will still be some totally frivolous and unnecessary gifts to friends and family. And I’m not going to stop accepting my husband’s unfailing generosity. There will still be a certain amount of sheer selfish delight. (I’m still a long, long way from sainthood!).
But I always remember the end of “Schindler’s List”. The moment when Oscar Schindler discovers the heavy ornate ring on his finger, and he realizes too late that he could have pawned it to save lives, but that now, the opportunity — and the need — has passed. He shouts in frustration, “I could have done more! I could have done more!” So this is the year I am going to fulfill my long-standing new year’s resolution. Finally. And when you think about it, you’re getting so much “bang for your buck”. While you are helping an anonymous needy person or community somewhere else in the world, you are also giving friends and loved ones the warm glow that is truly in the spirit of Christmas, while finally, finally, getting the very same glow yourself. (And silencing that annoying little gremlin in your head — at least until next Christmas).