As the holiday season begins, I am reminded again of my distaste for consumerism, commercials that only revolve around Santa Claus, and the assumption on every street corner that everyone celebrates Christmas. In my grumpiness, I am also reminded of my desire to break out of the Scrooge-rut and try and find joy in the holiday season.
What occurred to me about my distaste for the consumer madness is that I feel it especially negatively impacts my (and your, I suppose) children. All of those prodding commercials and ads in the newspaper and the signs and posters and billboards, the turning of a trip to the mall anytime between Thanksgiving and January a maze of Santas beckoning you to sit on their laps, shops enticing you with sales–bah, Humbug.
Let’s turn my grumpiness into a sort of task: how can we make our kids understand the “true” spirit of the holiday season?
The answer, of course, is thousands of years old. It’s super simple. It doesn’t cost anything. And it’s a Jewish concept: help others. That’s it. Help others. Do something. Anything. Deliver flowers to a senior citizens’ home. Make holiday cards for kids and women in battered women’s shelters. Serve up Christmas dinner at your local mission. Donate toys to toy drives for homeless children. Help others.
I was inspired by this video I saw recently. It’s for our local Friendship Circle, a national organization that provides a “summer day camp” experience to children with special needs. They also have parties and all sorts of fun events year round for kids and their families.
What’s exceptional about Friendship Circle, though, is that a huge component of their program is that it is staffed by kids and teenagers in addition to adults. Meaning: each special needs child or teenager is paired with a volunteering child or teenager. The volunteering child or teenager is responsible for learning about who they are paired with, learning what their limitations are, and committing themselves to being their friend and offering assistance when needed. Both benefit tremendously from this experience, and both are needed to make this mitzvah happen.
Friendship Circle has transformed an act of kindness and chesed into one of profound mutual development and possibility. In this situation, who is richer after the experience? Clearly, the campers and their parents get an experience that has previously not been available to them and it brings tears to my eyes every time I see these children laughing and enjoying things they never have experienced: a trampoline, an amusement park ride, a community of campers singing and laughing. But the volunteers report a sense of responsibility, maturation, appreciation and enormous growth from working with special needs campers. The volunteers’ lives are changed and enriched as they learn to give and help others. It’s a wonderful union of needs and blessings.
This provides a tremendously important lesson for this holiday season: if we want the holidays to not just be about consuming, we need to not just consume. We need to find ways to give, and to realize that for children especially, giving is not just giving; it’s receiving. When we give our time and our hands–even when they are small–we are receiving a gift that will change us forever. Helping others is a gift to others, but also to ourselves. It’s the best way I can imagine to help my kids spend this holiday season.
Our local Friendship Circle here in LA is putting on a Hanukkah party. Here’s the link. Check out Friendship Circle opportunities in your area, and if you have a child near in the teen years, please consider helping them give their time and efforts. They will receive more than they can even understand.
Happy Holidays, Chag Urim Sameach, and may the lights of Hanukkah ignite in us a flame of giving, receiving, and illuminating.
For more on helping others, read how Mayim’s phone helped an elderly man at the airport, teaching tzedakah to kids, and these great ideas for donating without opening your wallet. If you’d like to support Kveller and Mayim’s blog, consider making a $2 donation during our end of the year campaign.