- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hallelujah. Not everybody buys the holiday hype.

I am among those who would rather give a gift of time than the latest techno-toy to someone I really care about during what, for most Americans, is the “ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas” season.

Spending a few more moments surrounded by loved ones, especially during the various winter religious holy days, seems far more precious and meaningful, especially if you have a loved one who is no longer around to share this sacred time with you.

We must remember that Christmas is a sacred time when, according to the story, the first gifts were presented to a homeless baby in a barn. The gifts of the Magi were not designed to erase red ink from a corporate ledger.

The original ideals of Christmas commemorated humanitarian purpose, not individual profit. Do you really need a movie theater with surround sound in your home when so many people in the world do not have clean water to drink? How about donating to a worthy cause in the name of a family member or friend? Twenty bucks will ship one bike to an overseas destination. Contribute $5 to buy a hat and pair of gloves so the Sierra Club can take a local child to an area park. Or $30 will purchase a manual sewing machine for an Afghan widow and her family to survive. The cost of a Metro card for one local child to get to school for a month is $25.

These are just a few of the life care items that can be purchased through Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, D.C. (www.aggw.org). The all-volunteer organization has been hosting gift fairs this month throughout the region.

Three last-minute charity markets will be set up tomorrow in Bethesda and Adelphi churches. Representatives from local and worldwide nonprofit agencies will be on hand to answer questions and take donations. Folks also can choose their charity gifts from the Alternative Gifts International catalog (www.altgifts.org).

J. McCray, co-founder of Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, D.C., said area residents contributed $100,000 toward the worthy services last year. They helped to buy water-filtration systems in Haiti and a week’s worth of groceries for a D.C. senior.

This year, he said, it appears the idea is catching on and even more targeted funding is anticipated with additional regional groups participating.

Mr. McCray pointed out that the National Retail Foundation reported that American consumers planned to spend an average of $800 on holiday gifts this year, totaling more than $457 billion nationally.

“Think of the impact it would have on the world if even a tenth of that was given in the form of alternative gifts,” he said.

Indeed, $45 billion would go a long way to help nonprofits “work to solve the world’s intractable problems,” Mr. McCray said.

The alternative gift program is an offshoot of the Simplify the Holidays campaign instituted by the Center for a New American Dream.

“There was a sense that the holidays are overcommercialized and we’ve gotten away from what is the real spirit of giving,” said Mr. McCray, who works as the manager for operations of the D.C.-based Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

The local organization of umbrella groups under the auspices of Alternative Gifts began in 1999 in Takoma Park, where Mr. McCray lived. One of the benefits of the personal gift fairs, stocked with volunteers, is that donors get the opportunity to talk with representatives of the charities, and they know the exact impact of the gift they are giving. One hundred percent of the donation goes to the charity, he said.

This year, many alternative gift givers are concentrating on the Darfur region of Sudan by providing medical assistance such as nutritional supplements for children. Last year, many donors provided funding for school supplies and teacher salaries to educate Afghan girls. There are also alternative gifts geared to improving the environment.

The most costly local contribution is $75 to help Threshold Services provide two weeks of employment counseling for a person with mental illness.

One fun and unique venue to raise money for the local holiday gift fair program is called the D.C. Happy Hour, which was held at the Front Page bar near Dupont Circle earlier this month.

Shamefully, with the Xbox generation, commercialized Christmas seems to have sunk to new selfish lows. I can’t help but worry about what moral lessons we are passing on to our children — most of whom have never set foot in a church, synagogue or mosque — when we allow them to think that they are entitled to all their hearts’ desires simply because the calendar reads Dec. 25.

Instead, we should be shameless in our blatant giving to the less fortunate. What a jingle-bell thrill you really get if you are able to give gifts to those who are really needy.

Even so, alternative gift giving brings us back to the original story about the Magi and the message of Christmas, which is to show your love for the baby in the barn by showering gifts on the hungry, cold and naked.

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