The giving season isn’t just about exchanging gifts with friends and family or watching your kids eagerly check the contents of their stockings to see what Santa brought them. While the holidays are the perfect time to share presents with the people that you love, this time of year also provides a great opportunity to give back to your community and your world. Here are ten ways that you can spread the cheer this holiday season.
1. Be Santa. Traditionally, it’s a felony to open mail intended for someone else—but around Christmastime, the U.S. Postal Service is willing to bend the rules a little, at least as far as Santa Claus is concerned. Some U.S. cities provide volunteers with the opportunity to read letters from children addressed to Santa Claus, and fulfill the kids’ wishes by sending them Christmas gifts. If you don’t live near a Santa-approved post office, make a donation to Be an Elf (through their sponsoring nonprofit, Friends of the Levitt Pavilion) to help promote the program and recruit new secret Santas to make sure that disadvantaged children wake up to full stockings on Christmas morning.
2. Purchase alternative gifts for your friends and family. Does your mother already have everything her heart desires? No problem—get her a cow instead. Many charitable groups, such as Heifer and Oxfam America, offer unique giving opportunities that let you purchase farm animals, educational supplies, or other life-enhancing tools for people in developing nations on behalf of your loved ones. If you’re not sure whether a charitable donation will make the right holiday gift, read this article for tips on when to give a charitable gift.
3. Help an unwanted pet find a home. The holiday season is often the time to surprise your loved ones with the new puppy they’ve always wanted—but this is the perfect chance to help an unwanted pet find his forever home instead. Visit Petfinder to pick up a Pet Promise Certificate to give as a gift, to make sure that your giftee is ready for the responsibility of a pet. If you’re not ready to adopt just yet, donate to an animal shelter instead—a donation to Best Friends Animal Society will help care for the 2,000 special-needs animals living at their sanctuary.
4. Donate new toys to needy children in your local community through the Toys for Tots program. You can make a drop-off at Toys ’R Us and Babies ’R Us stores all around the country, or make a financial contribution to the cause online.
5. Give a Christmas tree to a military family or a soldier stationed overseas through the Trees for Troops program, an initiative of the Christmas Spirit Foundation. Last year, donors contributed enough money to deliver more than 16,000 trees to troop members and their families at home—your donation can make an even bigger difference this year.
6. Celebrate Hanukkah with a tzedakah box. For Jewish families, tzedakah (Hebrew for charity) is an essential component of religious tradition. If you’re celebrating Hanukkah with your family this year, devote at least one of the eight ceremonial nights to giving back by placing money into the family’s tzedakah box to designate to the charity of your choice.
7. Purchase your presents through the GoodShop. This online shopping portal allows you to select your favorite charity, and donate a portion of your purchase price to the cause you select. Make sure to bookmark the site—it’s the perfect way to make a contribution whenever you make a purchase through your favorite online shops.
8. Check out a charity auction. This time of year, plenty of local nonprofit groups hold charity auctions, where you can purchase collectible art, vacation packages, and all sorts of other goodies, with all proceeds going to charity. If there’s not one happening near you, check out an online charity auction site like Bidding For Good, or bid on the drool-worthy prizes available through the food bloggers’ annual auction, Menu for Hope, which benefits Friends of the World Food Program.
9. Volunteer to serve Christmas dinner to the residents of a local homeless shelter or senior care facility. To find holiday volunteer options close to home, run a search on Volunteer Match.
10. Sponsor a child in a developing country through an organization like Plan USA or World Vision. Your ongoing contribution will help you establish a meaningful connection with a child, helping to pull him or her out of extreme poverty. It’s what the giving spirit’s all about.