As much as we believers may try to avoid it, it’s hard not to get caught up in the present-buying frenzy that our culture is dominated by during the Christmas season. Spending enormous amounts of money on gifts every December has indeed become a kind of secular American tradition bordering on a religion.
While the giving of material gifts around Christmas time is a wonderful and storied Christian tradition that goes back to the time of Saint Nicholas in the fourth century, the pressure and stress of trying to buy the perfect present for a laundry list of family and friends can often feel overwhelming and can easily overshadow the reason for the season: the coming of Our Savior to earth as a baby.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a different — and perhaps better — way of gift giving that doesn’t necessarily involve spending money on material things. Here are five ideas on how we can give the gift of ourselves to others this season.
1. Reach out
Even before the pandemic hit, more than three in five Americans reported being lonely. The pandemic further compounded the problem, with the rates of reported loneliness and suicidal thoughts rising dramatically not only in the U.S. but globally.
It’s clear that there are many Americans, particularly in urban areas, that do not have strong networks of friends and family nearby them that they can get support from. This is where we as believers can be the hands and feet of Christ — by reaching out not only to those in our own social circles but also to anyone we may encounter in our daily lives. Here are a few ideas about how to connect with people.
- Write: Go through your contacts and send a text message or an email to someone you haven’t connected with in a long time asking them how they’re doing. You might even consider writing an old-fashioned letter if it strikes your fancy or you think your friend might be pleasantly surprised by one. You never know how a simple “Hello, how are you?” can affect someone, possibly giving them a mental boost at just the right time or rekindling a friendship.
- Strike Up Conversations: When you are out and about, don’t be afraid to be friendly. Initiating conversations with strangers in everyday situations is a great way to establish an atmosphere of friendliness in public. Whether it be asking the grocery store cashier how their day is going or asking how old a fellow patron’s kids are in the coffee shop, you never know where a good-natured conversation can lead — possibly even to friendship and faith.
- Take Regular Walks Around Your Neighborhood: Post-pandemic life has brought with it numerous changes, particularly making more American’s lives increasingly home-centric, so much so that one could conceivably go weeks without ever having to leave one’s house thanks to internet delivery services and the ability to work from home. This is why it is all the more important to get out of the house as often as possible, not only for fresh air and exercise but also to build community with those around us. By taking regular walks around our neighborhoods and making an effort to meet and become friendly with our neighbors, we can learn a lot, including where elderly shut-ins, those with disabilities, and families with small children live so that we can get to know them and offer our time or a helping hand when opportunities come our way.
2. Go through your closets and give stuff away
As one of the most prosperous nations on earth, Americans tend to accumulate stuff. Many of us have attics and closets full of things that we hardly ever use or wear. Instead of having garage sales or spending hours listing things on eBay to sell, consider giving your stuff away instead. Local Goodwill and secondhand stores are a good place to start, but it might be even better to consider giving them to a church clothing or Christmas gift drive so that those who are most in need can be the first to receive them. Just make sure the things you are giving away are not broken or overly used. Put yourself in the place of someone receiving your things — would you be happy to get them?
3. Make a meal or start a meal train for those in need
Providing a warm, home-cooked meal is one of the best ways to extend a helping and comforting hand to someone in need. With COVID and its variations still lurking, chances are we know someone in our social circles who is sick and may be in need of a meal (or more), especially if they are parents of small children whose needs don’t magically stop if their parents are sick. Others who often need meals are mothers who have just given birth and their families. One of the best ways to provide ongoing meals for those with extended illnesses or who have just had a baby is to set up a meal train for them — this allows their friends and acquaintances to all pitch in and sign up to provide meals for different days. MealTrain.com is a very useful and easy way to set up a meal train.
4. Consider serving in prison ministry
Christ commands us in Matthew 25 to visit those in prison. There are over two million people in prison in the U.S., and the rates of loneliness and depression among prisoners are extremely high. Many churches have their own prison ministry programs that serve local prisons. You can also volunteer your time with the biblical worldview-centered organization Prison Fellowship, as well as financially support them. Because of the COVID pandemic, many prisons have severely tightened regulations for visitors, making it more difficult for family and friends to visit prisoners. If this is the case with prisons in your area, consider writing letters to prisoners who don’t have family and friends to support them.
Times are difficult in America right now in many ways, but one of the most painful difficulties for many of us is how divided our extended families are. Polls show that differing views about politics and vaccines are causing familial rifts like never before, not to mention the growing number of family members who are at odds over religious views. When tensions are high with our loved ones, Christmas and New Years can be an especially hard time because we often aren’t in a very giving mood.
That’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is powerful. Jesus Himself assures us that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24). The Scriptures are brimming with verses on the power that prayer has to change things. When we cast all of our problems on the Lord in prayer, not only does He hear them, but our own minds are put at ease. The best gift we can possibly give to anyone is love, and prayer is absolutely integral to loving well. Whether it be a family member who has fallen away from Christ or someone who is sick and is in need of healing, prayer may just be the best gift you could ever give them.
Originally published at the Family Research Council.
Dan Hart is the Managing Editor for Publications at Family Research Council. His writing has appeared in such outlets as National Review, The Federalist, First Things, The Stream, The Christian Post, the National Catholic Register, and others. Before joining FRC, he served with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he worked to promote vocations to the clergy and religious life.