$712. That’s what we estimate we’ll spend on Christmas presents this year. That’s not just my family; it’s the national household average, according to an October Gallup poll. It’s a month’s worth of groceries for a family of four. It’s a mortgage payment on many a home. And it’s more than one-and-half times the average amount a Catholic household drops into the collection plate each year (which, in case you were wondering, is about $481). 

Wait! Keep reading. This isn’t that article. This isn’t the article designed to lay guilt on you about how much you spend on Christmas gifts to persuade you to give more money to your Church. That said, it is a good reminder of what the Christmas season is supposed to be about. Giving over receiving. Doing good over doing well. Compassion over consumption. What follows are some very good ways (and even better reasons) to rethink your giving this Christmas season. 

Beyond the $712

“But,” you might argue, “when I’m spending that $712, I’m spending on gifts for others, not for myself.” And that’s exactly the point. When thinking about giving this Christmas season, now is the perfect time to consider buying less. 

The O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi” gets a lot of play this time of year. You know the one (spoiler alert): Jim sells his prized pocket watch to buy his beloved wife Della combs for her beautiful hair. At the same time, Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch. It has a wonderful “give till it hurts” moral.  

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. I do not agree with the big way of doing things.”
— Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

But I can’t think of a couple who needed Christmas presents to prove their love to one another less than these two people. When Jim arrives home, he is “greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young.” And Jim says to Della, “I don’t think there’s anything … that could make me like my girl any less.” We have no choice but to believe that these two are crazy about each other. And as unbelievably selfless as their gifts to one another are, in the end it’s just stuff. 

Four suggestions

So this Christmas season — the liturgical season that runs from Dec. 24 until the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord — give something less tangible. Something that may not cost you a dime, but will enrich someone more than any gift card ever could.  

Here are simple examples that anyone can do: 

The Social Network: The axiom, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has never been truer than in this economy. The advent (small “a”) of social media has meant that it’s easier than ever to connect with the right people to uncover job opportunities. It’s like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with health benefits. The trick is, you have to know how to do it, and you’d be surprised at the number of people looking for work who could use your help networking.  

Many of us (myself included) have taken advantage of networking groups when we’re unemployed and looking for work, but how many of us have remained a resource to that group after we’ve found a new gig? Chances are you know someone who knows someone, and your connections might be the difference between an interview and the pile of “also-ran” resumés. If you can’t help by yourself, don’t be afraid to “crowd source” a solution.  

Crowd sourcing is like networking on steroids. The idea is that, if you pose a problem to a group, the people who have a solution are going to offer it up (or collaborate to do so). Whatever the case, there is power in numbers. 

Got a minute?: Ringing bells to raise money for nonprofits or serving food at soup kitchens are popular charitable activities at Christmastime. The problem is that those sorts of organizations need help year round. Last year, more than 5.6 million households accessed a food-assistance program at least once. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t give spare change to a charity or canned goods to a food shelf, but that if — as part of your Christmas giving — you committed to canvassing your neighborhood in, say, April, to collect a few dozen pounds of nonperishable goods and delivering them to a food pantry, you might make a dent in a seemingly insurmountable problem. 

America’s Got Talent: My dear friend Sally is a brilliant fashionista. She has devoted herself to an endeavor at www.alreadypretty.com because she has an uncanny knack for style. Another dear friend, Carter, writes crisp copy that moves target audiences to action. Still another friend, Jenna, is a newly minted attorney. All three of these women have used their talents — for free — to help others in these difficult economic times. Sally has helped women (who can’t afford the designer racks at Nordstrom) put together thrift-store ensembles that look amazing and professional in job interviews. Carter’s cover letters read like Pulitzer material. And Jenna’s pro bono work has helped more than one person out of a jam.  

“If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?”
— 1 John 3:17

The point is, we’re all good at something. When times are tough, it’s easy to forget that we have unique gifts to offer, and there’s someone out there who could use the benefit of your expertise. 

Sharing isn’t kids’ stuff: Ask yourself this question: When was the last time I shared? We’re not talking giving something to someone else, but sharing. The act of letting someone else have a turn with something that belongs to us, and then getting that something back. Sharing is one of those virtues we drill into our kids, but conveniently forget when we reach adulthood.  

Charity can be easily mistaken for pity when others need help. One way to get around that trap is to share what we have. If you telecommute or stay at home with your kids, have you thought about sharing your vehicle with someone who might need it a day or two out of the week? If you have more than one computer (especially a laptop), would you consider sharing it with someone who might need one to apply for jobs online or craft a resumé? Think about other things you have that you can share to help others in this comatose economy. 

What’s in it for me?

Still, ask people who have done any professional fundraising, and they will tell you that the most successful charities, capital campaigns, nonprofits, etc., don’t just ask for money. They also tell a compelling story about what giving does for the giver. That’s because — as generous as we would like to think we are — we are more likely to give when there is some benefit to us for giving. Maybe what’s holding you back from buying less this Christmas season in favor of doing more is that the Church hasn’t sufficiently answered the question “What’s in it for me?” (Or maybe that “reward in heaven” message hasn’t quite sunk in on Sundays. Whichever.) As it turns out, generosity — particularly among those of us who offer our gifts through our faith communities — has a lot of benefits. 

“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them ...”
Romans 12:6

In 2000, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University surveyed 3,000 Americans for its “Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey.” About a quarter of the respondents were Catholic. The survey found that: 

“[R]eligiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends.”  

Interestingly as well, Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71 percent) than they are to trust people they work with (52 percent), people in their neighborhood (47 percent) or people of their own race (31 percent). 

The survey found that people who give money to charity are 43 percent more likely than nongivers to say they were “very happy.” And volunteers are 42 percent more likely to be happy than their couch-potato counterparts. 

“Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
St. Augustine

As if that weren’t enough, giving also appears tied to feeling good. In a 2007 article in the journal Science, researchers looked at the ventral striatum (aka “pleasure centers”) in subjects’ brains. The study showed that receiving money for oneself and giving money to a charity stimulated pleasure centers in the brain that had many overlaps and similarities. 

In other words, when it comes to giving and receiving, our brains can’t really tell the difference. We get a rush from both. 

So, “what’s in it for me?” How about a healthy sense of connectedness to a supportive community? A better sense of trust and overall well-being? More (and more diverse) friends? A stronger sense of civic engagement? Happiness and a jolt to the parts of our brains that make us feel good? Generosity — especially generosity connected to a strong sense of faith — opens up a whole host of benefits for us as givers. 

Let’s face it: The commercial nature of Christmas is seductive. The packages and bows and “door busters” are showy and full of flash. But this Christmas is unique in our time. In an era of double-dip recessions, record foreclosures and 9.1 percent unemployment, a new sweater is nice. A new lease on life through active compassion is better. 

Cory Busse writes from Minnesota.

Mass Symbols 

Advent is rife with sacred symbols. The Scriptures are filled with images of light and darkness, noise and silence, waiting and fulfillment. The color of the season is deep purple reflecting the penitential and reflective nature of the season. Both the circular shape and the evergreen of the Advent wreath remind us of eternal and everlasting life. Arrive a bit early at Mass each Sunday and look around your parish for these signs and symbols that take on special meaning during this season. 

Candlelight: Christ is the light of the World. 

Evergreen: In Jesus, we are given the gift of eternal life. 

Water: We recall our baptism and are born anew in Jesus. 

Chant: We await the birth of the babe in the manger. 

Angels: Witness to the Good News.  

Star: The cosmic sign that the King of Kings has been born. 

The central focus of the season is the coming of the Lord. Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses this dual meaning: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (No. 524). 

Christmas at Home

Sometimes, the distractions of the commercial nature of Christmas make getting into the true spirit of Christmas tough. This season, help your family remember the real “reason for the season.” 

Away in a manger ... : Stockings hung by the chimney are great. And the ornaments the kids made in school are priceless. But in our house, the manger takes center stage. A gift from my parents several years ago, it serves as a constant reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. Even if your Baby Jesus is made of matchsticks, find a place of honor for one in your house. Talk about the true meaning of Christmas. Do it more than once. 

Birth narratives: Santa, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty and George Bailey get plenty of airtime during Advent. And their stories aren’t half as important as Jesus’. This Advent, instead of plopping down in front of the edited-for-television version of “Elf,” read (aloud and as a family) the annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey and Jesus’ birth. Then, tell your children their own birth narratives. From the journey to the hospital to the first time you held them in your arms. 

Take a hike: A long walk together as a family can help commemorate the last, literal leg of the journey from Advent to Christmas. Mary and Joseph’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 100 miles. And while no one expects your family to do an iron man with a donkey, walking and talking about the challenges of the original “First Family” can help us remember to be thankful for what we have. 

Sing for joy: If your neighborhood is like mine, Scroogey neighbors have actually written language into the association bylaws banning caroling. But there are alternatives. Sing in the car. Sing out at church. Schedule some time at an assisted living community and sing for people who might need an extra visitor or two at this important time of year. Stick to the carols that tell about Jesus’ birth and the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-Us. 

Read More: Be the shepherd this Advent