Real Simple readers share the many ways they spread good cheer.
We have decided as a family to serve others during the holidays, so on Christmas Day we volunteer at a local nonprofit that helps children with disabilities. This helps takes the focus off “stuff” and puts it back where it needs to be. Monica Leibacher
Keeping It Up All Year
Giving back during the holidays and giving back on any other day of the year should be the same: a warm smile, a “please” or a “thank you,” and maybe a nice hug. Instead of laying on your horn in traffic or pushing your way to the front of a line, take the time to make others’ days a bit happier and you’ll find you’ve given yourself the gift of happiness, too.
We have adopted families and dished out food at our local gospel mission during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the greatest way we have found to give back is to remember to do it all year long. Summer can be especially hard on food banks, and the needs are there year-round, not just at the holidays. We need to feel generous and thankful every day.
We don’t make giving just a seasonal thing. Our kids are involved, and we sponsor a child’s care in a special program at an orphanage in China (halfthesky.org) throughout the year. I also coordinate a program at my daughter’s former orphanage in China. It’s about giving of yourself, not giving money. That is what I want my kids to know, however they decide to give back as they grow.
During the holidays, as well as on special occasions, I often think of the word generosity when honoring friends and family. Generosity can be organizing a room in a friend’s house or sitting with a colleague’s aging parent so that she can run errands. Generosity can also mean helping out our local and worldwide communities: a donation to my church’s food pantry in my buddy’s name, lending support to my city’s latest Habitat for Humanity project, or a gift of service through the Seva Foundation, Heifer International, or Doctors Without Borders for my compassionate nephews. Most people I know are blessed with all the “things” they need, but gifts of generosity strengthen the spirit.
St. Louis, Missouri
Making Special Deliveries
My family and I adapted a holiday tradition from the book The Ultimate Gift, by Jim Stovall. At Thanksgiving, we decide on an amount of money to put aside, then we secretly spend it in a random, kindhearted way. Each of us has until Christmas Eve to complete our task, and we reveal it to the rest of the family on Christmas Day. The first year, I returned to the nursing home where my grandfather had spent his last years and gave gifts to a few residents who didn’t have families. The thought of going back there after my grandfather’s death seemed almost impossible, but knowing what it would mean to my mother and grandmother when I told them about it was well worth it.
My children and their friends enjoy singing carols and serving cookies at an assisted-living facility for the elderly. It’s an experience that leaves everyone feeling good.
I help needy animals. Sometimes I collect food, bedding, toys, and treats for my local shelter. And one year I sponsored a doghouse for a neglected dog through PETA’s Angels for Animals program at HelpingAnimals.com.
New York, New York
I take all my scraps of material and make blankets for Project Linus (projectlinus.org). The organization then donates them to seriously ill children in hospitals, social-service agencies, and shelters.
Liverpool, New York
My kids and I choose a family in our town that we know is going through a difficult time and become their secret elves for the 12 days before Christmas. Each day, we surreptitiously drop off small decorations and goodies with little cards. By the morning of December 25, their house looks festive, they’ve enjoyed a few treats, and their holiday has hopefully been easier and happier. We have a blast trying to leave the gifts for them without being found out, and we never reveal our identity―even though we are often named as suspects.
Mountain Lakes, New Jersey
In lieu of bringing presents for one another to the office gift exchange, we each decided to bring a wrapped gift for Toys for Tots instead. There are only 20 or so of us, but the pile of toys we had from our party was huge. We were able to give back and still have fun.
My family participates in Operation Christmas Child and fills shoe boxes with gifts to be sent to children in Third World countries through Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization. One year we got to work in the warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ll never forget the entire bustling warehouse standing in silence as we prayed over the millions of boxes.
Greensboro, North Carolina
Creating Movable Feasts
We live in the same city as a major university that has a large percentage of international students. Every year we invite different students we’ve never met to share a holiday dinner with our family. Even though many of them don’t speak much English, they all enjoy a home-cooked meal, and my two girls see the real meaning of the holiday firsthand.
The best activity I ever participated in was feeding the poor with my fiancé on Christmas Day. He carved eight turkeys that afternoon, even though he had never carved one in his life, and he was singing and joking with everyone all the while. For my part, I loved serving the food, sometimes cajoling people into “just another scoop of stuffing?” and “maybe some more green beans?” What truly surprised me was the way people accepted the food, with gentle grace. I felt ashamed for the times I’ve seen family members fight their way to the front of the line, while these folks, who might not have another warm meal all week, were patient and thankful.
Sun Valley, California
I bake two extra pies and deliver them to our local fire station. It’s a small way to show appreciation for all their hard work and dedication to our community.
San Diego, California
Adding Personal Touches
My children and I make holiday cards for our local Meals on Wheels organization. The cards are delivered to recipients along with their meals. A small note that says someone cares for you can make a huge impact on the recipient and the sender.
Lewiston, New York
Last year I did a charity-donation giveaway on my blog, greenstylemom.blogspot.com. Readers left comments about their favorite causes. I randomly chose a winner and donated $1 for every comment left by others toward the winner’s charity of choice. (My limit was $500.) I learned about so many organizations, and I plan to repeat the giveaway this year.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Every year, I hold a “No-Cookie Cookie Exchange.” For one evening in December, there’s no baking, no shopping, and no stress. All my friends come over for a relaxing evening of good food, good laughs, and lots of good cheer. The best part? Each guest brings a gift to donate to a teen at a local outreach center.
Germantown Hill, Illinois
Rather than buying everyone in our large families individual presents, a few years ago my husband and I decided that instead we would donate all that gift money to a nonprofit in our families’ names. We always tie it in with something happening in our lives. For example, the year we adopted our cats, we donated to the local Humane Society’s foster program. The year I made a cookbook of family recipes, we donated to a local food bank. We encouraged our family to consider donations rather than gifts, and now more than half our relatives do the same. The year my husband’s parents built a new house, they donated to Habitat for Humanity. A death in the family led to a donation to the American Cancer Society. It is such a wonderful feeling to get together for a simple holiday celebration with family, knowing that we have everything we need and have chosen to support well-deserving organizations.
Burlington, North Carolina
When I was in college, I wasn’t able to donate money to any charities, so instead I started donating blood to the American Red Cross. Although I’m now able to give to a few causes, I still give blood every three months because it makes me feel as if I’m making a difference. And it gives me an excuse to eat cookies!