what we did for Christmas this year

Posted: January 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

Our pastors challenged us in December with an 4-part sermon series called, “Advent Conspiracy:  Rescuing Christmas.”  The themes were something like worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.

I had already stripped the commercialism out of my Christmases many years ago, downsizing the shopping and the hyped expectations dramatically, so I wondered what might be left for me to learn, when I heard this series was coming.  Anytime I think I might not be able to learn from a message – that I “already have that one down,” then I know it’s time for me to pray for an open heart because I’m being an idiot.  I prayed accordingly and wholeheartedly, and by golly, it turned out that what was shared in those messages entirely reshaped how we did Christmas this year!  Yay for the open mind God will give me, if I just think to ask Him!

Each person hears something a little different with each message, but what I took away was first was the reminder of the reason Christians even celebrate Christmas, and the importance of focusing there and not on it being a shopping holiday.  Then, huge for me, was just the simple challenge:  who do you know that needs even one more “thing?”  Also, there was the encouragement to make gifts meaningful and personal/relational.  And finally, the importance of loving those who are forgotten, oppressed, or somehow deemed unlovable.

After one of the messages, our pastor challenged us to break into groups of 3, share our ideas for rethinking our giving of gifts, and then remember to ask each other how that played out – a kind of accountability.  That was the Sunday stuff really shifted for me and for our household.  I’m sharing about it here because I don’t remember ever being this excited about a Christmas since my kids were little.  None of this is intended as a brag – it’s just that we had so much fun and joy in what we did that it needs to be shared, in case anyone else needs to consider a similar shift to radically infuse their next Christmas with joy.

First of all, we decided not to get each other gifts at all.  Basically we are both hard to buy for because there’s not much we want, and so the stuff on our lists was just stuff we already know we’ll buy ourselves sooner or later.  Also neither of us is a rock star at the whole “choosing gifts” thing.  Just relieving ourselves and one another of that pressure was a big deal.

Next, we decided to spend the funds that we’d have spent on each other to buy nice heavy winter socks and hand warmers (both can be found pretty reasonably priced in bulk on Amazon.)  We took those on Christmas morning to Timothy House, which is a meal site for the homeless.  We also dropped off a giant pile of home-baked cookies and brownies to go with the lunch that would be served later that day.

I have to admit, even though I’ve worked at a domestic violence shelter and at a homeless shelter, the introvert in me had a bit of a hard time with the delivery of these items.  I was fine walking the cookies back to the kitchen, but G ended up doing all the walking around to personally hand out socks and hand warmers.  EVERYONE wanted socks.  We took 12 pairs.  I’d double that if I were doing it again.  They took the hand warmers too, and those will be handy for one 24-hour period when it’s bitterly cold, but socks have staying power.  Even though I lost my nerve to walk around passing stuff out (and was just so sad at this big room absolutely full of people without homes on Christmas morning), I saw how much it meant to people as G went around passing them out.  And I won’t soon forget to pray for those folks as they struggle.

On the way home from the shelter, I drove and G was on duty to use his amazing “seeing” skills.  What you have to understand here is this:  G can notice people in need like no one I ever met.  If he has food left when we are leaving a restaurant, he’ll take it to go and almost inevitably he’ll see someone and go give them the food.  I’ll watch him, thinking, “How can you tell that person needs it?  They don’t LOOK homeless.”  That’s a dumb thing to think, because most homeless people don’t “look” homeless – I know this from shelter work.  Still…how does he “see” them?  I assume it is Holy Spirit discernment, because no one ever turns him down on the food – he always gets a thank you and they always take it.  So I had a little stash of cash in my purse, and when G would see someone in need, he’d point and I’d stop and he’d hand-deliver them a little sum – not enough to change their circumstances (we’re not that well-funded), but enough to buy a cup of coffee and a donut and remember that somebody saw and cared.  He only got turned down once, and that was by the person I picked, who I had met in other places and knew to be profoundly mentally ill and probably dangerous.  That guy yelled at G and we drove away as he hollered and gesticulated at our car.  But everyone G picked?  They were glad.

That was one AMAZING Christmas morning.

Then there was also the matter of what to get for relatives.  Over the past few years, I have just basically not done almost anything at all, gift-wise.  Something small for G and for my parents.  Sometimes something small for my kids, but sometimes not even that – sometimes just a card for them.  Toys for very young kids.  Nothing for my siblings, nothing for my nieces who are no longer grade-schoolers (well, last year I tried writing out cards inviting them to a meal at our house during the year, but no one took us up on that at all.)  I wasn’t trying to be stingy – the budget is just always very small, and also I am bad enough at choosing gifts that it’s mostly a discouraging process for me.  So I’ve just been focusing for a long time now on gratitude for Christ on Christmas, and time spent with family, and not a lot more.

This year, we came up with an idea so exciting that the “who gets stuff” list expanded to everyone we’d be seeing for the holiday.  What we did:  micro-loans.  Have you heard of them?  Here’s how it went.  We went on a couple of different websites – the Kiva site and the World Vision site.  We bought “gift cards,” which we could give out to our loved ones.  This enabled them to pick out people (“entrepreneurs”) in third-world countries who need a boost to start or maintain a business, and loan them money interest-free.  When the loan is repaid (and something like 90% of the loans get repaid), then the funds can be loaned to someone else.

What excited me about this idea is the world-changing possibility of it all.  I can buy someone a bottle of cologne, and it will be nice.  I can help them loan money to someone in a third-world country, and it may make a life-and-death difference there.  A couple of years ago, I read the book Half the Sky, and amidst learning how truly awful it can be to live as a woman in many parts of the world, I also learned about the power of loaning funds to women in third-world countries.  That these women start and grow businesses, make sure their kids get fed and educated so they have a shot at breaking out of the cycle of poverty.  That they also help other women start and grow businesses as well.  (Sadly, the same studies showed that loaning men in those places money mostly results in the men buying booze and prostitutes.)  You can loan as little as $25 at a time, the beauty of that being if they don’t pay it back – who cares?  It’s a chance to be a blessing and give someone a shot with basically no risk to the lender.  So we passed out $25 gift cards to lots of family members, and I just can’t wait to hear about who they’ve chosen to support.  On Christmas morning, we chose our own entrepreneur, a lady in Lebanon who does tutoring in her home and wants to build a wall to make a separate area for the tutoring students in order to grow her business.

The reason we went to two different websites for the loans was a matter of thinking about the people we were giving to.  World Vision is a faith-based organization and is very much advancing the cause of Christ as they do their ministry.  We made sure that people who are clearly excited about spreading the gospel got cards with World Vision.  For folks who are not so much about that or who might be less-than-excited about mixing a faith conversation into the act of helping someone, Kiva is a nice site (I actually learned about the site from some pretty ardent atheists on an email list I’m still on for Chicagoans who like to bike.)

Finally, we do have one niece who is probably too young to navigate the business of a micro-loan; for her, we went on the Heifer International  website and bought a flock of ducks for a family in  third world country in her honor.  We picked up a beanie baby duck for her, so that every time she sees/plays with her duck, she can remember that a family that might otherwise be starving has a flock of ducks, and can sell duck eggs and baby ducks for income.  I was worried she wouldn’t get it, but she totally did.

I said it at the top of this blog, but I’ll say it again:  I was more excited about this Christmas than I’ve been since my kids were little.  The prospect of twelve people or families who live under conditions that I cannot even properly imagine will be helped is overwhelming.  The fun of our family members getting to go in and pick people out, and then get reports on how the various projects are going – AWESOME!  And even if someone wasn’t totally thrilled to get it, I see it this way:  first, maybe as they scroll through to pick someone, their understanding will be changed and their hearts opened to a new and different compassion and chance for joy.  Even if not, if I got them a scarf or a sweater or whatever and they didn’t like it, it would lay in the drawer and be of no benefit to anyone unless they made the effort to at least give it to someone else.  If they don’t like the gift card?  If they don’t even log on to choose someone?  After a certain amount of time (a year, I think), the funds are just loaned at the discretion of the local field officer.  So the people at the other end get blessed, one way or another.

The dozen folks who got socks…the nearly 40 who got hand-warmers…the 40 or so who got cookies or brownies…the half a dozen who got instant cash…the 13 individuals or families who got microloans…the dozen family members who get to take part in the process…it all adds up to a massive Christmas blessing.  This feels like honoring Christ, to me.   This feels like God’s economy.  This feels like love.

I’m so grateful to our pastors, for the challenge, and to God, who opened my mind at my request, when I thought maybe I had nothing new to learn on this point.

Just had to share the fun!  Please borrow any/all ideas that appeal to you!

  1. Cindy Maynard says:

    This is AWESOME! When you have the privilege to see how your investment is helping another, that is life-changing! Bless you and Gary for your thoughtfulness in this Christmas gifting idea(s)!

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