“Underwear? They have underwear on their Christmas list?”
My husband was dismayed. He took the wish-list of items that a local homeless shelter had provided us and romped through the isles of Walmart. Rather than choosing three items off the list, like we had been instructed, my husband purchased everything, filling our cart with jeans, warm gloves, undergarments and yes, toys, for the family that we had “adopted” for Christmas.
We spent about $500 that night on a family we would never meet. It was more than we planned on spending, but we got so much joy from wrapping the presents and stowing them under the tree until they were delivered to the shelter. On Christmas day, I smiled to myself all morning, picturing a mom and her three kids experiencing a bit of holiday magic amidst a tough life.
Our own daughter — about 9 months old at the time — had one present to open, because she already had plenty. I didn’t want to needlessly spend on her just because it was a holiday, especially when she was too young to know to expect gifts. I’d much give to people with a genuine need.
Involving The Kids In Giving
Since that year, my family has “adopted” a family in need every holiday season. We work with local organizations — first the homeless shelter, then a community action-type program. The programs identify families in need, compile wish lists, and deliver the gifts. We just get to play Santa.
As soon as my daughter was old enough to begin understanding the concept of gift-giving, we incorporated her into the tradition, which has become a family favorite. To make the idea of giving to strangers more concrete, I try to choose a family that has children of similar ages to my daughter. That way she can use her experiences to select a gift that the kids will hopefully love.
After years of doing this, my six-year-old doesn’t even question the tradition — although she often tries to get herself and the child we’re shopping for matching presents. As we’re shopping, we open up important conversations: we talk about how some families don’t have extra money to spend on toys or even clothes; we’re lucky to have plenty, so we help out when we can.
“You’re like Santa,” I say. “You’re helping another kid to have a really special Christmas.”
More Meaningful Gift Giving
So often, I hear people wonder aloud what to get such-and-such family member for Christmas. Usually, this comes with a side note about how that family member already has everything. While I love giving the perfect gift as much as anyone else, I find little joy in giving just to check off a social expectation.
Luckily, my extended family agrees. Now, we’re grown our tradition of giving, and rather than buying presents for each other, my mother, siblings and I pool our money to “adopt” a larger family with more needs. Usually, these families are last on the list because it can be a financial burden to take on so many family members.
Of course, opening gifts is fun and an important part of many Christmas traditions. For the most part we now let the kids handle that aspect of Christmas, but in recent years we’ve started doing a Yankee swap for the adults too. Although we each leave Christmas with only one present, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we helped a family in need have a holiday to remember.
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