Christmas was a season of giving on many different levels in my family. There was the dropping of change into the red buckets of the Salvation Army bell ringers. There was the special gift or sum of money provided to the newspaper boy, the postman, and other service providers. There was the extra money placed in the offering plate at church or in the weekly envelop used for tithing. There were the checks written for the charities supported during the year. Those that were focused on helping orphaned children, animals in need, and the “less fortunate” were particular favorites of my family.
These monetary disbursements were enhanced by gifts of food baskets to the home-bound, canned good drives, and crafts such as knitted mittens, scarves, or other bits of clothing. The church I grew up in was big on making sure church members who were home-bound had visits and a bit of cheer. These visits were done on Sundays after the church services and were foundational in teaching me the value of spending time together and reinforcing the heart connections as well as providing food or gifts.
There are so many lessons related to charity that seem to flow from the Christian Christmas Story. First and foremost is the kindness shown to Joseph and a very pregnant Mary in finding a place to have the Baby Jesus. While we don’t have eye-witness accounts of any midwives being present, one can infer that Mary was assisted by a wise woman along with others who crowded in that manger. Shelter, assistance in birthing, swaddling, and attending to the necessary paperwork (after all, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for the census!) all were accomplished with the support and assistance of charitable acts of others.
If memory serves, and if I have been educated broadly as I believe I have, there is not one spiritual tradition that does not include directions about caring for others and giving to those in need. Some of the most lyrical writing arises from these instructions:
From the Yogic Tradition: Do charity regularly, every month, or even daily according to your means. Never fail in this item. If necessary forego some personal wants but keep up this charity regularly.
From the Christian Tradition (2 Corinthians 8:7) But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you —see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
From the Islamic Tradition: The Koran (The Third Pillar of Islam (zakat) offers: “If you disclose acts of charity, even so it is well, but if you conceal them, and make them reach those really in need, that is best for you. It will remove from you some of your (stains of) evil” (2:271).
From the Buddhist Tradition: Gautama Buddha is credited with saying: “Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.”
From the Jewish Tradition: In the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) “If there will be among you a needy person…you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”
On a more secular note, I was a big fan of San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Jon Carroll. He used to run an annual column called “the Untied Way” (that is the intentional spelling, “u-n-t-i-e-d”). I love it and encourage you to click on the link and read it not only because he is an excellent writer, but because he makes an irrefutable point: connecting with someone and giving them means for obtaining something they want or need without judgment is one of the most charitable acts a human can do.
This is one of the things I learned as a child. Loose change given to the Salvation Army bell ringer made me feel good. Giving things to people in need makes me feel good. Helping others makes me feel good. Seems like a pretty clear formula: Giver’s Gain!
Yes, there are scams out there. There are agencies who use more money to pay managers than care for the people they serve. There are charities with messages you may disagree with or have problems with. That really (and I mean really!) doesn’t matter. People in need are worthy recipients of our generosity.
Charitable giving is now BIG BUSINESS, even after many of the incentives formerly available in terms of tax deductions have been eliminated. According to the Charity Navigator, “Historically, donations from individuals account for over two-thirds of all donations. If you add in gifts from bequests, then the category accounts for nearly 80% of all giving. In other words, the donating public, not big foundations or corporations, is responsible for the vast majority of annual donations.” This is a very useful website and offers great information on how to make sure your charitable dollars are effective.But giving some money once or twice a year does not a successful fundraising campaign make!
Over the years, the United Way became a model of collecting money, coordinating services, connecting the needy with those who provide services and/or training, and spending funds to help out those who experienced need in emergencies. Local charities competed for donations with national and international organizations. The work of attracting donations and raising funds for worthy causes became a full-time, well-paid business.
As of last year (2018) according to Forbes magazine, the top 10 charities in the U.S. were:
- United Way
- Feeding America
- The Task Force for Global Health
- Salvation Army
- St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
- Direct Relief
- Habitat for Humanity
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America
I am not suggesting you give to any of these charities. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to do your own homework and use the guidelines on Charity Navigator to help you decide just where your donations can make the biggest difference. You may want to give anonymously. You may wish to give a bequest so you won’t be around to manage all those expressions of gratitude, or, on the other hand, you may want to have a foundation named after you and be interviewed by Oprah and bask in the glory of giving. Doesn’t matter one whit!
There is a reason spiritual traditions give instructions on the importance of giving. It is because we are all better for having given. We are all increased for having received. We are all brought closer together for having been in need and having be able to fill another’s need.
Whether you have a spiritual practice, or are merely wishing to help your fellow human beings, I encourage you to find a way to give during this season, and all year round.