It was about a week before Christmas and school had just closed for the break. As an eager, over-enthusiastic fifth-grader, I was excited to spend time with my family but, most important, I couldn’t wait to receive a whole bunch of special gifts I knew I was bound to enjoy.
I wanted a new wardrobe from Siblings, the latest release from Disney Studios and the Easy-Bake Oven that had been on my wish list every year since I was eight. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, so there was no shortage of grovelling at the feet of my parents during this time.
What I had considered a great Christmas would have revealed itself in the number of gifts I received and the freedom to stuff my face with red and pink painted candy-canes while wearing polka-dotted pajamas. I wasn’t too thrilled to see extended family – including the mischievous boys who called themselves my cousins – but I was willing to tolerate them for my mother’s sake.
My parents usually did most of the gift buying and entertaining, which I never did care to be a part of – although I was quick to include myself in the credits when aunts, uncles and friends chose to display their appreciation by offering us a few gifts of their own. My little mind had already deduced at the time that Christmas was all about getting and rarely did I think much about the giving end of the equation.
Fast forward some 20 years and, just like any other Christmas, my mind drums up images in my head of what I would love to see happen in my life this season. While I admit I wouldn’t mind receiving some much-needed items – think a new laptop computer or some new boots – I know now that the things that truly matter in this world can’t be bought with money or a gift card.
If you’ve had a hard year financially and emotionally and you are not in a place where you can venture out on a huge shopping spree, don’t lose heart. You can still give back in many wonderful ways and it won’t cost you a cent.
Invite Someone Over for Dinner
There’s a reason why most of the interactions Christ had with people during his earthly ministry revolved around food. In many Middle Eastern countries, the practice of sharing meals in close-knit circles is still common.
The idea that food helps create community is a large part of the motivation for the Saath Foundation’s monthly feeding programs at Grace United Church, in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Not only do volunteers take the time to serve those who drop by for these programs but,according to co-founder and director Shahana Nassor, they even take the time to sit down and eat the same meal with them.
“For a lot of people, this is the only meal that they will have for the entire day,” she shares. “Food is something that anyone can bond over and that is something truly special.”
Be a Friend
The vision behind the Saath Foundation started with a group of friends who began handing out lunches to people they would encounter, whether homeless or not. Two years later, Saath – which means “companionship” in several South Asian languages – has been intentional about forming connections with community members by first serving them with nutritious meals.
“Giving doesn’t always have to just be about money. You can give by offering a kind gesture, such as a hug or a smile to a stranger.”
That’s why more and more research is revealing that strong social ties are connected with a longer and healthier lifespan. In fact, according to research from 2010, the effects of friendship on lifespan are twice as strong as that of exercising and quitting smoking.
Friendship can also be a powerful antidote when facing hard times, in and out of the season. After all, sometimes all someone needs is a friend who “will be there (and who) will listen and support them during their trial,” says Nassor. Taking time out of your day and spending it with a good friend or family member to show how much you appreciate them is a gift that cannot be rivalled.
Smile at Someone
Numerous studies have shown the positive benefits that can come from simply giving someone a smile. Also, a small gesture such as this can help strangers feel more connected to you. So never fear if you feel as if you don’t have a lot to give, as it is possible to do so in simple, yet meaningful, ways.
“We have this idea that giving is something that we have to put effort into and go out of our way to do,” Nassor says. “But giving doesn’t always have to just be about money. You can give by offering a kind gesture, such as a hug or a smile to a stranger.”
Donate Your Used Items
If you have some nice, quality clothes that haven’t been worn in awhile, or a phone you are no longer using, why not donate these items to someone in need? There are many charitable organizations that can do more with your unused items than you would believe.
Or maybe you have a friend in a financially unstable place who has expressed a need to you that you may be able to fulfill. Here’s a thought: why not pass around some of your older blessings? Encourage those within your circles to participate in a “white elephant” exchange and have the gifts distributed among yourselves at your next get-together.
As the old saying goes, “One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.” Plus, giving in this way doesn’t take any extra effort and beats waiting in long lineups during the holiday season.
Give of Your Time
If you have a bit of free time on your hands and are unsure of how to use it, how about investing it in something that matters most? This could be as modest as helping a friend cook dinner and clear out her storage room or volunteering with a local charity at set times during the season.
While material things can sometimes fade away from neglect or overuse, time is something that can span generations. “You can touch people in (many) ways,” says Nassor. “Effort. Love. Time. (All of these) are very valuable and (are things)that you can easily give.”
Offer from Your Heart
As Christmas draws near, it may be natural for you to allow your mind to wander with thoughts of things you hope to get, in a way similar to how mine did as a child some time ago. Believe it or not, you will gain much when you give, as there is more to the art than meets the eye.
“We look at giving as something that’s taken away from us,” Nassor explains. But “when we give, it’s not necessarily something that we have lost. When we change our mindset, it automatically becomes a gain for ourselves.”
So, this Christmas and throughout the rest of the year, don’t be afraid to open up your heart to give and experience its life-changing effects. When you indulge yourself freely in this pro bono activity, you will find no greater joy for yourself and those you choose to bless this holiday season and beyond.
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