Every year, for many years, I have mailed off roughly the same Christmas gifts to my siblings: a funny dog book or wall hanging for my sister Penny, who dotes on her four dogs; “crazy Cat Lady” trinkets to my oldest sister, Debbie, a cat lover whose husband used to volunteer at a shelter to help socialize feral cats for adoption; and a Minnesota-themed calendar or T-shirt or hat to my brother in Boston, who likes to showcase his Midwestern heritage.
They, in turn, would send me boxes of See’s candy, wax-wrapped aged cheese, frosted cookies in a holiday-themed tin — gifts that I appreciated but really do not need.
This year, I decided, would be different. Crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t appear dismissive of their past efforts, I emailed my siblings before Thanksgiving and asked that, in lieu of material gifts, they give to one of two nonprofits in my name: a local community services organization for which my husband and I deliver Meals on Wheels every Friday and a feminist policy-based organization that is gearing up against threats to Roe v. Wade.
“With the pandemic pressing in on us again and racially based divisiveness rocking our country, I am more aware than ever of the privilege we were born into and from which we continue to benefit,” I wrote.
“To that end, David and I respectfully ask that you take any money you would normally spend on the lovely gifts of food you send us for Christmas each year and instead donate that amount in our names to one of these causes.”
Each of my siblings generously supported the food shelves, youth employment and senior classes at Keystone Community Services, one noting that our father and stepmother received Meals on Wheels for a time. Soon after my initial request, I wrote again, saying that I would like to donate to their favorite causes and elevate the reach of Christmas beyond its consumerist underpinnings.
In the process, I got to know my sisters and brother better. Just as a budget reflects a company or a country’s core values, where a person chooses to donate money says a lot about that individual’s priorities, and about how they see themselves.
Access to the outdoors
My younger brother, L.J., showed himself as the Bostonian he has become since marrying a native of the city some 28 years ago. “Please donate to the Rose Kennedy Greenway,” he told me. “It is a great urban park that adds a lot to downtown Boston.” The public space and programming commits to “providing a park environment that is welcoming to racially, culturally, and economically diverse residents and visitors,” according to the website.
With food trucks, fitness classes, fountains and open green space — typically concentrated in the more affluent neighborhoods of our nation’s cities — the Greenway looks like an inviting place for people of all ages, abilities and economic classes to play and hang out.
I’m not surprised that equity and inclusion in the natural world is an important value to my brother — raised, as we were, in a community with ample municipal and state parks and in a family that prioritized fitness and outdoor exercise — but we’ve never discussed it. Less politically liberal than I am, my brother revealed a side of himself I otherwise might not have seen. “Thanks for donating,” he said, pronouncing this philanthropic gift exchange “a nice idea.”
My sister Penny’s overt, over-the-top love of dogs is a running joke in our family. We love to recount the time her father-in-law said that after he died, he wanted to return to Earth as one of Penny’s pampered dogs, the ones who get soft-serve cones at Dairy Queen and homemade dinner so enticing that I once mistakenly ate it myself.
No surprise, then, that Penny’s choice for my donation was Colorado Pet Pantry, a food bank for pets that allows low-income people, or those whose luck has temporarily turned, to keep their animals rather than surrendering them to shelters.
“Being the dog lover that I am, I’m drawn to charities for pets,” she said. “This charity is unique in that it helps people to be able to keep a beloved animal they maybe otherwise couldn’t. That just spoke to me as a nonprofit worth supporting.”
What matters most
The morning after Christmas, I survey the leftovers in the fridge and determine that I can take a break from cooking that day. I recycle the plain brown wrapping paper that my younger son used on his thoughtful gifts of books. I force myself out, despite the cold, on my daily dog walk, trying to counteract the intake of overly rich food.
No Amazon boxes to break down and recycle. No cursing at the amount of plastic wrap that shippers use. No pondering whether to freeze or give away the pounds of candy and exotic edibles that my husband and I, as older empty nesters, do not need to consume.
Instead, I look over the website for the Retreat Center of Maryland, a 5-year-old organization that aims to bring yoga and other wellness practices to people with autism or Parkinson’s disease and other populations that the industry historically has not served. This is my sister Debbie’s choice for my Christmas gift, a nod to our mutual love of yoga. One of her neighbors, a volunteer yoga teacher in prisons, serves on the board.
My stepsister, Mary, my only sibling still living in Minnesota, chose Vine: Faith in Action, which matches volunteers with the needs of people ages 60 and older. In-person and online exercise classes and programs on topics such as diabetes, financial exploitation of seniors and healthcare directives have helped the Mankato-based organization continue to grow and serve.
“I want the gift of time,” I used to tell my sons every Mother’s Day. Now I want this practice of Christmas donations to become a tradition, bringing to life a quote commonly attributed to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church in which my siblings and I were raised:
Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.
As a Unitarian, I no longer celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Still, I watch myself get caught up every year in the trappings and trimmings, the whirlwind of shopping and spending. Today, as December draws to a close, I can say, “Merry Christmas” and mean it, knowing that my brother and sisters and I shared what I believe is the true Christmas spirit.