“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 rather give to people with a genuine need. Here’s how we make that happen.
Involving The Kids in Holiday 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 holiday 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 Holiday 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’ve grown our tradition of holiday 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.
Charities for Holiday Giving
If you don’t have access to adopt a family or purchase gifts directly, there are always online charities you can give to as well. A charity donation in lieu of a Christmas gift is always a wonderful act of holiday giving, and here are charities we found to help you make that happen:
If you’re looking for a way to help by giving free Christmas gifts by mail, Toys for Tots is a wonderful organization to make that happen. They have an incredible virtual toy store that allows you all the fun of shopping for a toy, from home. Or, you can donate online in a variety of ways, from making a tax-deductible donation to contributing through PayPal.
The Salvation Army provides a lot of Christmas help to families in need this time of year and you can help in many ways too: schedule a free pick-up of items in your home to donate (a couch for Christmas could make one family very happy!) or just donate directly online for their financial assistance programs.
OK, I had no idea this existed, but this is the coolest program ever: through efforts of the USPS, the postal service publicly posts letters that children have written to Santa through Be an Elf, a non-profit set-up to get children from families in need Free Christmas gifts. The program screens the letter, then posts the appropriate ones with children in need online, where anyone can “adopt” the family and provide them with gifts. Just scroll the website and choose a letter to adopt!
This program has a similar formula as one of the Christmas charities for low income families: it offers both letters you can adopt, as well as Amazon wishlists to adopt to make it even more simple.
Local Churches + Food Pantries
Most churches and food pantries will be offering some kind of free Christmas gifts for low income families in 2021, so don’t hesitate to simply contact them and ask them what they need! Other good places to check with are foster care agencies, child welfare services, and thrift shops.
No matter how or where you choose to give as a family, just be sure to talk about it together with your kids and get them involved as much through the process as possible. Because just remember: a family that gives together, grows together.
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