US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Buy more presents

| Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Holiday shopping can be meaningful, when done for charity.

When I first began working at U.S. Catholic years ago, the magazine ran an article entitled, “Buy your Christmas presents twice.”  While I don’t recall any of the content, the title has stayed with me as a challenge to try to make another family’s Christmas as bountiful as my own family’s always is. As we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, born in a stable, I figure we owe it.

We used to get linked up with a family from Chicago’s Catholic Charities office, where we could specify the number of children we could provide for. My sister and my niece share the cost with us, as my mom also did when she was alive. The family, whose name is concealed, would list items the children needed. These were often heartrendingly simple: coats, boots, hats, scarves, mittens, warm clothing. I’ll never forget one family who asked for a kitchen table. The contrast to one’s own Christmas wish list is striking.

Some years I would contact Catholic Charities too late, and all the families needing gifts would be taken—a good sign, though it was back in the boom years before the current recession. I began calling Casa Catalina, the basic needs center in Chicago’s Back of the Yards which serves 350 families each week.

So this Christmas tradition takes place in a crowded discount store, where we try to plot how we can get everything a family might need for the best prices possible. (The cheaper the better, as you can buy more.) Coats, hats, gloves, PJs, socks, jeans, warm fleece tops. Books, crayons, markers, drawing paper, toys, stuffed animals, wrapping paper, tape. We always include a little something for mom and dad, who are never included in the request: a pair of nice bath towels, a throw, some candy.

My daughter sizes up the stuffed animals for cuteness and helps weed out dorky clothing and dopey toys. My husband offers his own brand of wise advice: “Don’t buy that coat, hon--did you forget these kids live in a neighborhood with lots of gangs?” or “Did you want that kid to be the laughingstock of his block with that outfit?” We always include some Cubs gear. “But Mom, they live on the South Side--what if they’re Sox fans?” asks my daughter. Perhaps we can get them on the right track, says I.

We have a “showing” at home of the assembled gifts before we load them into big garbage bags for delivery to Casa Catalina. My sister always includes a generous gift certificate to a grocery store, which I’m sure the parents love.   

You never do get to meet the family who is receiving your gifts. You do not get to see whether they exclaim (or groan) over your choices. This seems somehow right, an exercise in humility, in doing something not to get thanks but because it is the right thing to do. It is something, but it is certainly not enough.

Christmas shopping for your own family is never quite the same.

Cathy O'Connell-Cahill is senior editor of U.S. Catholic and managing editor of At Home With Our Faith.

Read more blogs about Advent and Christmas traditions at Submit a guest blog to We may put this together into a holiday theme Meditation Room for the magazine next year. Any reflections selected for publication will win $50!