|Holiday on Nice|
|See this article on the Star-Ledger's website|
Somewhere in Africa, there's a goat with an unsuspecting Kenyan family's name on it. My family and I adopted the much-needed animal for them after we came across the idea in a holiday catalog from the non-profit group Heifer International. Looking at the catalog made me think twice about the gratuitous amounts of money we normally spend each year on return-worthy holiday gifts. No offense, Elmo. I just hope the Heifer people tape a gift receipt to the goat's belly in case the family wants to trade up for a llama.
Giving a gift to a stranger who truly needs it feels right, but it's also rare. Holiday compassion, which all of us value but seldom practice, is the opposite of holiday commercialism, which most of us practice, but never value. Many people describe this triumph of consumerism as taking the "Christ out of Christmas," but Christ isn't getting Job-eliminated anytime soon. There's plenty of religion to go around for those who choose it. There's even plenty for those who haven't formally chosen it. Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond have all released Christmas-themed evangelical albums, though thankfully we'll never hear Christina Aguilera or Beyonce over-singing The Dreidel Song: "I made it out of cla—aaa—aaa—ayy…"
Growing up Jewish, I've never really connected holiday compassion to Hanukkah. The Festival of Lights focuses on the story of Jews who, for lack of an all-night convenience store, ran perilously low on olive oil, but managed to make it last eight nights. I have the same miraculous experience every few months with my toothpaste, but I keep that to myself.
In my contemporary extended family of Jews, Christians, agnostics, and psychologists, we always try to respect everyone's cultural leanings. We light a menorah, but also exchange gifts on Christmas morning. We spin dreidels, but also hang garlands. We focus a little too much on presents, but also focus a little too much on presents. But reconnecting the holiday to acts of selfless generosity, like gifting a goat, creates no messy religious contradictions, unless the said goat is also a Scientologist.
"The thing about giving a goat – or a llama, or a cow – for the holidays is that it restores the balance between giving and getting," Ray White, public information director at Heifer International told me. "It really honors the spirit of the season as a time to think of others and to reach out to those who are less fortunate."
To be fair, you can find other examples of holiday generosity when you look. Every winter, "New York Cares" distributes donated coats to those who can't afford them, and toy collection efforts have been around since Silly Putty. But more often than not, those compassionate efforts only get substantial exposure when they're mired in controversy. The U.S. Marines' "Toys for Tots" program got its best publicity ever when it decided in November to refuse a donation of thousands of gospel-spouting Jesus Christ dolls. They feared offending Jewish and Muslim families, or possibly confusing kids who might excitedly mistake Jesus for Obi-Wan Kenobi. But faster than you can say "Merry Christmas and Welcome to Wal-Mart," the Marines did an about-face and accepted the dolls anyway. Note if you receive one: batteries are not included, and some Assembly of God required, depending on your faith.
My hometown of Maplewood is unfortunately considered Ground Zero in the War on Christmas because we have public school policies that prohibit the overt celebration of one cultural observance over another. But instead of focusing on what Maplewood's Columbia High School chorus does or doesn't sing, we should turn our attention to the school's less glitzy Harry Potter Club. As reported in Maplewood's local newspaper, the club created a program called the "Harry Potter Healing Campaign." In the campaign, students read Harry Potter books to hospitalized children. That's a wizard-worthy idea example of compassionate spirit, holiday-themed or not.
Our new Kenyan friends don't need to be thinking of us when their gift arrives, though they can pay it forward. The great thing about this kind of program is that recipients traditionally "pass on" their animals' offspring to others in their community. Not only can't you do that with a Playstation 3, but it isn't even considered re-gifting!
My main hope is that, through my gift, the Kenyan family realizes there are parts of the world where caring people will still go out and practice compassion alongside religion and holiday shopping.
And as long as those people are out, they should pick up some extra olive oil just in case.