All of this is about transcending the connection to cash," said Will Keller, founder and owner of Monastery Greetings, which has a catalog and website featuring gifts whose sale supports more than 100 monasteries, religious communities and hermitages throughout the United States and abroad. Traditional monastic food offerings of fruitcake, preserves, cookies and fudge compete with more esoteric items such as green-tea lotion, lavender-rice soap, white lilac incense and hand-knotted prayer beads.
"By purchasing these products, there's a physical connection," to the monks, nuns and contemplatives, said Keller, who launched Monastery Greetings in 1999.
Customers "can enjoy a product that's made by their hands, made in their kitchens, or made on their grounds it's about in some way connecting with the communities -- and by extension, connecting with [a buyer's] own spirituality."
Since a number of the communities don't have the staff or financial resources to market themselves, the catalog allows them to reach audiences to whom they might otherwise remain unknown.
Monastery Greetings also assists with product development. When the nuns at St. Benedict Monastery in Canyon, Texas, had an idea for "pray-lines" made with Texas pecans, they sent Keller some samples. Convinced after a few bites, he helped the nuns determine pricing and packaging, and the pralines have since become a best-selling item. "We provide a low-cost way for communities to test an idea," said Keller, "so they don't have to print a catalog, buy a mailing list" or concern themselves with any of the other traditional and costly components of a secular marketing plan.
"These are really amazing people who live in these communities," Keller said. Through the creation of food and other handcrafts, Keller feels that "they're making us part of their family."
Kentucky's Gethsemani Farms, the Trappist community that was once home to Thomas Merton, supports itself with a mail-order business of fruitcake, cheese and bourbon fudge.
"The cheese was first," explained Gethsemani Farms' business manager Brother Robert, who said the community made its first sales more than 40 years ago. "The abbot, Dom James, was a graduate of Harvard Business School. É We were making our own cheese for the consumption of the monks, and Dom James got the idea that maybe we could sell it. So that's how the first product started."
The community's earliest mailing list was gathered from phone books, in primeval contrast to the modern, streamlined mail and Internet operation that, in 2006, posted worldwide sales of 104,000 pounds of cheese, 118,000 pounds of fruitcake and 89,000 pounds of fudge.
Once voted "best overall" in quality and value by The Wall Street Journal, the monks' fruitcake became so renowned that it was featured on cable television's Food Network. "One of the monks, Brother Fenton, had the recipe -- and we've never deviated from it," Brother Robert said of the bourbon-laced confection. Four hours of the monks' day are devoted to production, with the remainder set aside for prayer, contemplation and other monastic activities.
A staff assists some 40 bothers with customer service, but all employees are, Brother Robert notes with satisfaction, locals. Crafting the cheese, fruitcake and fudge, however, remains the monks' responsibility.
"The thing that I'm most proud of is that, I can honestly say, we still do make all those products," said Brother Robert.
Food for the Poor's Christmas 2007 Gift Catalog aims at holiday consciousness-raising with gifts of food and clothing, housing and sanitation projects, farm animals, school and commercial fishing supplies, and orphan sponsorship in countries throughout Latin and Central America and the Caribbean.
In the developed world, "we consider these necessities -- but they happen to be luxuries in many of the countries that we serve," said Food for the Poor's public relations manager, Ann Briere. Givers can order through a printed catalog or online, with both methods providing certificates narrating the gift's impact.
"The gifts in the catalog are tools to the people," Briere told Our Sunday Visitor, using one example of poor communities in Jamaica and Haiti. "We locate a destitute village along the coast and supply them with boats, motors, coolers and fishing equipment, and then we send in a trainer to teach them the essentials of deep-water fishing," she said. "It has created industries in these villages -- and not just for the few fishermen, but for the entire village."
Highly regarded for its efficiency and effectiveness, 96 percent of all donations to Food for the Poor go directly to its programs, with only 4 percent supporting administrative costs.
"One of the hallmarks of our organization has been our philosophy that we go into the field and ask the priests, the missionaries and the pastors, 'What do you need?' and then we attempt to fulfill those needs," Briere explained. "We're not just giving them what we have -- we're giving them what they need."
Christmas perhaps doesn't immediately call to mind foreign trade alliances or micro-enterprise initiatives, but Catholic Relief Services' Fair Trade program teams distributors with impoverished workers worldwide, marketing their coffee, chocolate and handmade merchandise at a price that guarantees equitable wages while also providing technical and financial assistance.
"It's trying very specifically to help small-scale farmers, home-based businesses, people who are sometimes outside of the regular market because they lack access to information," said Fair Trade program adviser Jacqueline DeCarlo. "When they come together under fair trade terms they're able to become entrepreneurs."
With each sale, CRS' network of nonprofit partners in turn make a contribution to the CRS Fair Trade Fund, which promotes market access, credit, training and development. "Part of the product price factors in being able to invest in things like health clinics, or schools, or paved roads -- and that impacts everybody in a community, not just the individual artisans," explained DeCarlo. "It's quite a ripple effect."
That ripple effect, DeCarlo believes, is especially important at the holidays, when "we're inundated with advertisements and pressures to make purchases -- so we're kind of disconnected from who makes the products." Purchasing fair trade products "really does benefit the consumer because they have a connection to a person or an association in a place well beyond their usual day-to-day living," DeCarlo said. "It's very satisfying and gratifying to know that, when you've made a fair trade purchase you also have some tangible sense of your own consumer power, and your ability to live your values."