Getting goats for Christmas (Or, how a disillusioned shopper found his joy)

I hate Christmas shopping. Not because I’m bitterly opposed to the commercialization of the holidays. Not because I can’t fight for a bargain (one infamous Black Friday, I bobbed and weaved through a crowd at a now-defunct electronics store to physically lie atop a row of desktop computer boxes my dad needed for his office). In fact, I love surprising my loved ones with gifts that I know they’ll enjoy.

It’s just that sometimes those gifts are awful hard to find. Maybe I’m just not creative enough. Maybe I don’t have the gift of gifting. My aunt can find everyone in the family the perfect gift every single time, despite only talking to us a handful of times each year. Meanwhile, I’ve never known what to get her. A candle that smells like the ocean? Socks with jingle bells? A toaster?

When you don’t know what to get, hunting for gifts is painstaking, and usually fruitless. It was even worse for me when I lived in Arkansas and the nearest shopping destinations were over an hour away. So, one Christmas, I dug into the family traditions and revived something a fellow displaced relative began some seasons ago. In lieu of the perfect gift, I made a charitable donation in honor of that family member.

Okay, so it wasn’t the purest of motivations – I stink at thinking of good gifts, so here’s a card explaining how you helped people in some remote village halfway across the world. But I still recognized the relative value of providing basic necessities to someone in need as opposed to buying jingle socks whose best fate would be a regifting at next year’s Dirty Santa exchange.

And, unlike an exasperated final stop at a department store that ends with a set of bathtowels, I knew the donations weren’t going to be an afterthought. I investigated various charitable organizations to learn how they allocated funds, interacted with the communities they served, and successfully executed campaigns. By the time I passed out cards on Christmas morning, these donations were far from shopping substitutions – they were carefully selected gifts to connect giver and receiver in a common goal. In each one was a part of my family and a part of myself. At least I felt more purposeful.

The next year, my sister joined, focusing her gifts on local missions. If I stumbled onto a good idea, my sister, one of the most caring people I know, jumped in head first. She told us all about the projects and the people behind them. Like so much of life, the meaning comes from the story around the action. The “why” of giving to this organization – to this cause – is what makes the gift tangible, the purpose communal. How thankful we are for our blessings as we hear about how gifts given in the name of our family and of our faith are blessing others in need. Sharing those stories has become one of the highlights of Christmas.

My grandparents, the hosts of our annual Christmas gathering, have joined in this year. They are providing farm animals to communities in need through World Vision. My grandmother, ever the animal lover, isn’t much for surprises. She’s been telling us all how we’re getting goats for Christmas. Here’s hoping they don’t get delivered to the backyard.

Courtesy (seriously)

This year, my Christmas donations in honor of my family are supporting two different organizations. First, we are supporting Samaritan’s Purse’s International Crisis Response program by providing funds for emergency relief kits. My family knows what it’s like to be impacted by a natural disaster. We felt the effects of Hurricane Katrina for weeks and months and years after its landfall. The church I attended at the time opened a shelter on a whim – traffic was terrible as evacuees drove northward and we thought people might need a place to rest. Little did we know that our 48-hour shelter would remain open for over a month as families found themselves homeless. It was only through the support of aid programs like this that our shelter had the food, clothing, and bedding needed to operate.

Second, we are supporting Blood:Water Mission. The organization battles crises in Africa on two fronts. They provide HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programming, as well as build and repair fresh water wells. They were founded by one of the musicians I admired most during my days in radio, Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine. They also aren’t a “parachute” charity. In other words, they don’t raise the money, build something, and then leave. My grandparents were missionaries. They know that providing something of utility is nice, but without training the utility is temporary, and without relationship the impact is only physical. We prefer these enduring, comprehensive approaches.

I’m not here to boast. After all, I was just a “bah humbug” frustrated Christmas shopper looking for an alternative. The idea isn’t anything new and the charities aren’t out of the ordinary. But I am here to encourage you to give it a try. Still shopping for that person who has everything? As my grandmother told me, “I bet they don’t have a goat.”

We still enjoy opening presents and giving each other things we want. But my family has found that supporting causes you care about can do wonders for your Christmas. We certainly enjoy it more than another ugly sweater.


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