There's a perverse irony. Christmas, celebrating the arrival of tangible salvation from the world's material evils, and Hanukkah, commemorating the triumph of the Torah over public oppression, are often observed by shopping at malls.
"Just to equate how much you care about someone with how much you spend is, I think, a violation of what it is to be a really caring person," says local activist Sr. Alice Gerdeman.
The annual lemming-like orgy of over-consumption isn't the only choice. Ethically and environmentally conscious gifts, donations made in honor of someone you love and simply deciding to opt out of giving are all options. A meaningful alternative is to demonstrate concern for the recipient's beliefs or offering a gift that involves self-sacrifice rather than breaking the bank.
"It could be something that you got at a yard sale or thrift store, or it could also be something in your possession that you're willing to part with," Gerdeman says.
One Christmas someone bought a pig in her name for a poor family in a developing nation.
"You're giving the gift of a decent life to people around the world," she says, adding that people who get caught up in buying are missing the point. "They miss the spiritual element." There's a lot of pressure, and we start with children when they're very young."
Tracy Rains, a Norwood mother, says she tries to give small, meaningful gifts that reflect her beliefs.
"We don't go into debt to give Christmas presents, but we do love to give," she says.
Showing off a new-to-her sweater from Village Thrift, Rains says this year she purchased gifts for family while on a service trip in Guatemala. Last year she did all of her shopping at Ten Thousand Villages, a Fair Trade store.
"We don't live extravagantly," Rains says. "We usually try and show our kids that giving to others is what Christmas is really about."
The mall is something Rains avoids at all costs.
"They make me sick physically," she says. "I don't think my senses can handle all that stuff thrown at them."
· Buy Fair Trade. The Fair Trade philosophy is simple: American vendors pay individual artisans, farmers and small manufacturers from all over the world a living wage for their goods and deliver high-quality products. The Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center's (IJPC) sixth annual St. Nick Day sale offers unique Fair Trade gifts including art, coffee and hot chocolate. A portion of the proceeds will fund IJPC's socially conscious work.
The sale is from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 1 at Peaslee Neighborhood Center, 215 E. 14th St. in Over-the-Rhine. For information, call 513-579-8547.
Ten Thousand Villages is a year-round Fair Trade shop that has handmade clothes, art, housewares and more. Hundreds of handicrafts are available. The store is at 2011 Madison Road in O'Bryonville. For information, call 513-871-5840.
· Buy green. Park+Vine, an ecologically conscious general store, has recycled art, sweatshop-free clothes, organic personal care products and natural foods. The store is at 1109 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine. For information, call 513-721-7275.
· Buy art from a local kid. The Cincinnati Arts and Technology Center, which teaches life and business skills to area youth, will have art and crafts by local high school students for sale from 3-8 p.m. Dec. 14. Eighty-five percent of the sales go directly to the student artists. The center is at Longworth Hall, 700 Pete Rose Way, Downtown.
· Make a donation to honor a friend. "Another really great gift option is donating in honor of somebody," says Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. Getty says giving to a friend's favorite charity is a way to celebrate a friendship and do some good. Charities will mail a letter to your loved one, acknowledging the gift.
Local charities are great options. Internationally, www.Heifer.org lets you donate farm animals to struggling families around the world, and www.Kiva.org allows users to make interest-free loans to Third World entrepreneurs -- a fun, educational process that can be shared with children.
· Host a white elephant party. Everyone brings a pre-loved gift -- one they've owned, are re-gifting or purchased from a thrift store. Guests can trade their gifts with each other. Recipients barter until they get what they really want.
· Give your time and memories. You might want to send everyone you love handwritten letters or cards that share memories rather than generic holiday wishes. Gerdeman says it's also a great idea to commit to writing or spending time with shut-ins and the elderly throughout the year -- "basically saying we're going to pay attention to you every month rather than just once a year," she says.
Other ideas include taking someone out for a meal or ice cream. Sharing your time with others is often more meaningful than spending money.
In general, it's important to connect the spirit of good will with your beliefs. You can save paper by reusing gift bags and wrapping presents in your favorite alternative newspaper. You can decorate a living tree in a pot rather than cutting one down and decorate it with strings of popcorn instead of plastic tinsel.
Creativity goes a long way toward redeeming the holiday spirit. ©