Holiday gift giving with a purpose

It’s happened to all of us: we’re at the mall, enjoying the air conditioning and shopping for summer clothes when we stumble across a holiday display, complete with plastic snow and Christmas trees. We shake our heads, complain about the commercialization of Christmas and walk off, knowing we’ll be back, credit card in hand…soon. — Ed.

August. That was the month I saw Christmas decorations appear in my favorite big-box superstore, along with aisles of children’s toys waiting to be snatched up in the coming shopping frenzy. I quickly snapped a picture of the surreal landscape and posted it to Facebook with the caption “Really?” and then headed back to my car through the 105-degree heat.

Retailers have perfected their Christmas marketing strategies. They begin their planning a year in advance, ordering merchandise, shipping stock to warehouses and testing product desirability. The trend to bring larger quantities of fewer items into store inventories earlier and earlier enables vendors to get a jump on competitors. These savvy merchants have turned shopping into a science as they fiercely contend for the half-trillion dollars that Americans will spend on gift giving this holiday season.

It’s about this time every year that I hear of another gift giving idea on the radio. The announcer proudly proclaims, “Give the most unique and memorable gift of the year—name a star after someone.” The commercial suggests this “eternal gift” will “last a lifetime,” and proudly boasts that this company has named over 1,000,000 stars. What the announcer neglects to reveal is that only the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the authority to name a star and that the IAU does not sell or authorize anyone to buy a star on behalf of another. Furthermore, each of the 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye already has a name. While the sentiment is nice, the gift is meaningless.

There are, however, many appropriate ways to honor someone with a non-traditional gift this holiday season. Many charitable organizations now offer a way for givers to purchase something unique on behalf of someone else. Gifts can be bought in the name of a loved one to be given to individuals and families in developing countries.

Last year my sister gave me a flock of chicks for a needy farmer in India. Likewise, I gave my parents a portion of a water buffalo for a family in Asia. The principle behind such giving is to provide sustainable products, usually livestock or vegetation, which will help someone become self-sufficient. In doing so, the giver truly honors the loved one and, indeed, gives a gift of eternal and lasting significance.

Here is a small sample of non-profit companies that encourage meaningful and sustainable gift giving:

  • Heifer International—Providing livestock to millions of families in more than 128 countries, Heifer’s mission is to end global hunger and poverty through resourcing and educating impoverished communities around the globe. (
  • Kiva—Lending more than 241 million dollars to help microfinance small entrepreneurial projects around the world, Kiva’s mission is to empower and help people create better lives for themselves in under-resourced communities. (
  • MCC—Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) uses donations to bring “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ” to people worldwide by responding to basic human needs. As a Christian agency, MCC shares a holistic gospel and ministers to both physical and spiritual needs. (

Despite the recent recession, Americans will continue to spend and consume at an alarming rate this holiday season. Black Friday and Cyber Monday elicit a Pavlovian desire within us to buy and amass more stuff, propelling the average household into debt. Statistics reveal that most people will take six months to pay for their holiday gift giving. About one in four of those who incur debt will still be paying it off next December.

Even those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and find meaning in honoring the Christ of Christmas are not immune. More than a quarter of Christians surveyed over the 2009 holiday period reported that they were crippled by debt. Sadly, Americans seem firmly committed to the value of consumption, regardless of its toll.

Gift giving through a non-profit charitable company honors those we love and provides an alternative to the self-absorbed consumerism that so pervades our culture. Those of us who are committed to the message of good news embodied in the birth of God’s son would do well to remember the words of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for Jesus: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” What wonderful gift-giving wisdom! This is the kind of advice that just might make for a very joyful season.

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