Friday, December 23, 2011

Interfaith Christmas Charity

Depending on where you are in the world at the moment, you likely have one shopping day before Christmas, and just enough time to donate to a charity before the actual day of Christmas. Today, I just squeaked in a food donation, with 15 minutes to spare, before the charity I wanted to contribute to closed at noon until the 27th. I had hoped to have some time to shop, and add a contribution of clothing and toys as I had last year. I asked the woman in charge if they would still need donations just after Christmas, and she said, "Yes". I asked of what in particular, and she replied, "Everything". So I said I would add my clothing and toy donations then.

In retrospect, my questions were rather foolish, and brought on by my distress at discovering the offices would be closed so early. I was at the St Vincent de Paul Society, which is a Roman Catholic charity. Persisting in questions I knew the answer to, I asked if they gave only to members of the parish in need, or to others as well. As fast as I asked, she replied, "Religion doesn't enter into it; we give to the needy."  I added, "Of which there are many in this parish". In fact, I had deliberately chosen to donate there, as the parish has a mixed population, some extremely needy due to mental or physical impairment, or social circumstances, others newly arrived to Canada and still getting on their feet. Still others, whether native born or newer Canadians, are in a position to contribute to the well-being of others.

Christmas charity can bring food, clothes, and toys to all needy families, and is particularly important given the season. Even a hat, scarf, and mitts set is a good start for someone new to Canada, or down on their luck, and feeling the cold. Of course they will need much more, but it is a start, and one that people without many funds tend to overlook, as they try to find a suitable coat.

A couple of years ago, when I was getting my seemingly nightly order from the Middle East takeout, I made a point of asking the servers if Santa would be coming to their house. Most were single men in their 20s and 30s and just laughed along with me. However, an older man, an immigrant Muslim with 9 children, thought carefully, and said, yes, Santa did some times come to his house at Christmas, and brought treats and toys for the children. It was clear that at times his earnings were so low that he was on a charity list. He spoke of the experience with pleasure on behalf of his children, while leaving his own earning difficulties vague.

On the theme of interfaith charity at Christmas, I would like to share my experience last year, which was both unusual, and enlightening. What follows was part of a longer post on my cross-cultural shopping adventures last year, some of which were more pleasant than others, and which will be published in a separate post.

My Christmas Charity 2010

This year, as part of my grieving process after the loss of my father, and particularly as it is the first Christmas without him, I have been inspired to contribute to the St Vincent de Paul Society. St Vincent's is the Roman Catholic charity that provides for the needy, and particularly at Christmas makes sure that the less fortunate members of the parish and the broader community have food, clothing, toys, and gifts. This is the charity to which my father's family and my father would contribute, even while contributing to others--like the Salvation Army, who are particularly associated with Christmas.

The inspiration started when I attended mass on the First Sunday of Advent (for only the second time in my life) because I woke up grieving and needing to go to church and a mass, which is where I feel I can always connect with my father. At the end of that mass, in a prominent cathedral, there was an appeal from the head of the parish's St Vincent de Paul Society for parishioners to donate money in specialy provided pink envelopes.  That parish has a great number of poor, because it is in a downtown neighbourhood which is a mix of recent immigrants, low income families, psychiatric patients, and "lost souls".

I did give a monetary gift, but then, after the emotional hit of my father's birthdate, December 20th (which found me in a weekday mass, for the first time in my life), I decided to contribute goods to that parish's St Vincent de Paul Society. I began with a bag of groceries, followed with a second, and before I left for holidays on the 23rd, my Christmas garden of 2 white and 5 red poinsettias, and more groceries were donated.

Between the first, and the last donation, I started to find little things that I thought would make for a nice Christmas, and were both attractive and practical gifts--primarily for children, but also for adults. These included stuffed toys of high quality that were marked down from $5 to $1 each, because the penguin-snowman had 2008 on its scarf. As I said to the somewhat snarky cashier trying to promote the 2010 version at full price, I doubt that babies care about the year, and I am sure parents with few funds are happy to have a plush toy for baby. On my 3rd visit with the same cashier (10 stuffed toys, in 2 sets, and a 6th box of Christmas cards), I asked if those stuffed toys from 2008 had been marked down further. He stopped his derisive comment in mid-sentence when I told him I was buying them to give to charity.

In the meantime, I also found Old Navy trendy one size fits all gloves for $1 a pair in sets for boys/men as well as girls/women (still easier to buy for); packs of multiple hair clips, fancy pins, and special ponytail holders for girls and women of all ages for $2 each in an Ardene; and Old Navy children's socks in black, white, and grey unisex pairs, 10 pairs for $10. Oh, to have been in Old Navy on $1/winter scarf day! Still, for $30, which I can easily afford, even after my personal shopping for the season, I had the sense that 10 pairs of hands and 10 pairs of feet would be warm; and the girls, teens, and women in 5 families could share (fight over) hair bobbles, and feel that much more fashionable.

I must say that although I didn't enjoy the crowds of the last shopping days, this was among the most satisfying shopping I have ever done. While it is nice to select special gifts for the special people in one's life, it is uplifting to choose nice things one can imagine will bring joy to someone who is struggling, or struggling to provide for children.

In the past I have been happy to give money, or have it given by an association of which I am part. The only other act of Christmas charity which gave me the same level of satisfaction was shopping for a gift for one of the hub's female colleagues whose name he had drawn in the office gift exchange. The premise of that corporate Christmas party was to imagine the person at age 8, and buy them a toy. The wrapped and tagged toys were distributed by and from "Santa" who called each staff member to his place beside the Christmas tree at the office party. After opening and oohing and ahhing, the toys were collected and given to a children's charity.

I thought it was a brilliant idea, and the best exchange idea I'd ever experienced personally or vicariously. I had great fun maxing out the set limit on art supplies for a budding artist, or just a child who needed an opportunity for creativity and free expression. Alas, the next year, the new Christmas Party Committee decided that gag gifts with a sex theme would be more "fun".  Bah, humbug!

The reason I was buying a 6th box of Christmas cards from the snarky cashier above, is because somewhere between my dreadful Friday (Dec 17)--my anniversary reaction to the day I went to my family's home for the holidays last year, discovered my Dad was very ill, and returned to my normal life 4 months later, but grieving my Dad's passing--and Dec 20th, I read an article about Canada Post cancelling free postage for Christmas cards sent to "Any Canadian Forces Member" overseas.

Operation Santa Claus is a longstanding Canadian Forces program that makes sure even those with few correspondents receive cards and Santa packages over the holidays. In the past, Canada Post handled all related mail free, but has decided this year- the last one, supposedly, when we have combat troops in Afghanistan--to fund only those letters and parcels addressed to a specific service member, and to require postage on all those sent to "Any Canadian Forces Member".

The article described how this impacted school programs where annually the children spend time in art and literature classes making cards and composing letters, and look forward to the idea that some service member will enjoy receiving their creations. As so often happens with cutbacks affecting school children, teachers were paying the postage out of pocket.

Canada Post will continue to provide a program of free delivery to deployed troops. Parcels can be mailed for free to deployed CF members for the period 18 Oct 2010 to 7 January 2011. Letters and packages up to 500 grams can be mailed for free until the end of 2011. Visit the Canada Post Website for additional detail of the offer. Note that this program is not extended to mail addressed to "Any Canadian Forces Member " and all such items will require postage. [emphasis added]
--from the National Defense and Canadian Forces site, "Write the Troops"

I was, and am, incensed that Canada Post couldn't wait one more Christmas to choose this particular cost saving measure--until we at least supposedly won't have combat troops in Afghanistan. I also feel that it targets the vulnerable. Postage for letters and parcels sent to a specific armed forces member is still free. I guess that helps out armed forces families, and their friends, but presumably at least those service members have people wanting to send them greetings and gifts. Still, for me, the bottom line is they should have waited a year, if it had to be done.

Therefore, I decided to send cards this year, in part because of Canada Post's stupidity, and in part because my father would have liked the idea. I sent 216 hand signed cards with a little hand written note in English and French inside thanking them for their service and wishing them happy holidays and a happy New Year. Hopefully, the cards will give pleasure to someone far from home!

What part does charity play in your Christmas celebration?
What are your thoughts on charity across faiths?
What experiences have you had as a giver or recipient of charitable donations?
Other impressions, thoughts, comments?


Susanne said...

There is nothing quite as satisfying and cheering as buying for others - especially people you know who really NEED things. I enjoyed this post and am really glad you shared. What wonderful ways to remember the spirit of the season!

Wendy said...

I see more and more people adopting a family for Christmas rather than buying gifts for their own families. I also like the idea of buying a gift of a chicken or some other animal to help a family get started and give the gift in the name of a grandchild and then teach the grandchild about what that gift means. We have become an indecently materialistic society and that is sad.
Merry Christmas to you and your family, Chiara!


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