Having a charitable Christmas

Posted: Dec 14, 2005 12:05 AM

Having trouble deciding what to get your spouse, parents, or adult children for Christmas? Here's an idea: Make a donation in their name to charity instead of buying them something they probably don't need. For all the complaining from some conservatives about the assault on Christmas -- creches banned from public spaces, no more Christmas carols sung in schools, and the secular "Happy Holidays" replacing "Merry Christmas" as the season's greeting -- the biggest threat to Christmas in recent years is its gross commercialization. Christmas sales are now the engine that drives retail marketing. Most retailers make all their profits in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holiday, which used to be a holy day, is now just an excuse to buy more things.

My youngest son, Rudy, came up with the idea of our family exchanging charitable gifts this year instead of the usual gewgaws. Last week, he asked my husband, his brothers, and me to give what we would normally spend on his presents to a charity of our choice, and he would do the same for us. I thought this was not only a generous idea, but one that would reduce much of the stress of the season. I love Christmas, but I hate shopping. The malls are crowded, there's never enough parking, and tempers are short. By the time you get home, your back aches, and you've probably brought home a cold along with your packages. But the worst part for most families is the pressure to spend more each year, often more than they can afford.

 Credit cards and "easy payment" plans encourage many people to spend beyond their means, especially at Christmastime. Ads push luxury items that are well above the reach of most Americans, yet the images raise expectations for everyone. How many husbands can really afford to go out and buy a new luxury car for their wife for Christmas? Yet an ad featuring a young man inspired to give his wife a new car by the image of a Lexus parked beneath a big, red bow plays over and over through the holidays. Then there are the diamond ads. Not rich enough to buy your wife the Stefan Hafner diamond crescent earrings featured in the Bergdorf Goodman ad for $38,600 in the New York Times? Well, there are always those $199 specials at Kay Jewelers. The problem is, of course, that while those who will spend $40,000 on a gift can probably afford to do so, those buying downscale versions of these gifts rarely can. Many American families carry crushing credit card debt -- on average, more than $8,500 -- and can barely afford to pay down the monthly interest, much less pay off the principal. About half of all credit card holders pay only the minimum payment each month.

 The spirit of Christmas is supposed to be about giving, but certainly not giving more baubles and gadgets than any of us knows what to do with. We have witnessed so much loss and tragedy both here and around the world in the past year, from the tsunami that hit South Asia the day after last Christmas to the hurricanes that ravished the Gulf Coast to earthquakes in Pakistan, and just this week, in Congo. Wouldn't it be better to give so that others might eat than to overindulge ourselves? There are wonderful charities out there -- the big ones like Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, or Lutheran Relief Services, and smaller, specialty charities like Operation Smile, which provides surgery to correct facial deformities in children in poor countries. And, of course, many churches sponsor families who need help this time of year, as do civic groups.

 So instead of spending time surfing the Internet for more things to buy, why not spend a little time looking for a charity that does work you'd like to support? Now that would be honoring the true spirit of Christmas.