The meaning of the holidays can get lost amidst the countless mall Santas, catchy commercials and endless whines of "Mommy, I want one!" For some, giving has evolved into a practice of largely senseless spending on superfluous items that, in many cases, lose their "hot off the shelf" lustre after a few months. In the end, we can be left awash in a sea of glossy wrapping paper with little more to show for it than inflated credit card bills.
Yet with a little bit of research and some imagination, the true spirit of the season can be recaptured. Instead of participating in a typical gift exchange, why not ask your family and friends to donate that money and energy to a worthy cause instead? Reaching out to those in need will make you feel good, while letting you avoid a holiday debt hangover.
Here are six suggested alternatives to the traditional gift exchange.
Connect with a community agency
According to Judith John, vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way of Greater Toronto, the best way to get involved in holiday giving is through a community agency. John suggests anonymous donations.
"You don't want it to be awkward. You don't want people to be humbled by the giving – it can be embarrassing," John says. "Going through an agency is the best way to go."
Deliver meals to seniors
Run largely by volunteers, the United Way offers many opportunities for families to donate their time and energies. One popular option is for families to help deliver nutritious, low-cost meals to seniors as part of the Meals on Wheels program.
"Seniors feel cut off at this time of year, so it's quite important," says John, who has participated with her own children during the holidays.
Work at a soup kitchen
You could also ask your friends and family to join you in working at a soup kitchen. According to some government studies, there are nearly 40,000 homeless Canadians, many of whom seek out meals from soup kitchens. As the season approaches and soup kitchens experience greater demand, more community involvement will help meet these needs.
Give to a food bank
Donating to food banks can also make a real difference. According to the Canadian Association of Food Banks, close to 800,000 people turn to food banks each month, and almost 40 per cent of these food bank recipients are children.
Volunteer at a shelter
Families can also opt to focus their energies toward one of the hundreds of shelters for abused women and children. During the holidays, the United Way offers programs to make gift baskets to send to various shelters.
"Shelters try to help displaced families cope," John says. "Preparing baskets to give out is a very tangible expression of compassion."
Hand out presents to the homeless
Your family or group of friends can volunteer their resources to homeless children. According to the Canadian Institute of Child Health, the number of homeless families with children in cities across Canada is on the rise. In Toronto alone, 19 per cent of the homeless population is children.
The United Way offers opportunities for volunteers to purchase, make and/or wrap presents for homeless youth that they can really use, such as scarves, mittens, hats etc.
Ultimately, the time spent donating your energy to a worthy cause will be much more enjoyable than pushing your way through a crowded mall. Plus, the memory of working with your friends and family to help those in need will likely be more cherished than the usual trinkets and gifts you receive.