by Henry Briggs

“Oh boy!” said my 4-year-old son when he first saw all the presents Santa had put under the tree. “I must have been a REALLY good boy!” (Verbatim, folks, I swear.)

Merchants, who have ruined an originally well-intentioned holiday, ramp up expectations so cleverly now that we’re all compelled to march (or click ) down to the local store and buy, buy, buy, as in “Bye, Bye, Bye!” hard-earned dollars. We spend to avoid feeling guilty or shamed into buying more. That’s quite a qualifier.

‘Tis also the season for charity giving.

“Charities are big business”, says the Wall Street Journal. There are 1.5 million charities in the US for which the IRS allows tax deduction status. Vanguard has a $5.1 billion fund, Vanguard Charitable, that makes donations on behalf of investors. Big movers and shakers have full-time staff just to “vet” charities. Tax deductions for charitable giving is a way of giving something to a good cause and giving something to yourself as well. It’s a lot more noble than giving to avoid guilt, but still not exactly unqualified.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: poorer people give a larger percentages of their income to charitable causes than rich people. (I know, I know; that’s why they’re poor; right?)

And then there are those who give but just don’t care about tax deductions. For them, as with parents and the poor, giving is a one-way street. “Here, this is for you. No, nothing in return. Just glad to be able to help.” This kind of giving isn’t publicized the way, say Bill and Melinda Gates’ giving is, but it’s all around us.

Here are just two examples I ran into:

There’s a 92-year-old woman in Florida who, like many older people, was a widow. She has very little money and lives far from her kids. What she does have is lifelong friends in her little town. She rents a house that was built on stilts in 1920 and upgraded just once, in the 1950s. Last year she took a spill that put her in the hospital and left her barely able to walk, not to mention climb stairs or find another place to rent.

Her friend and neighbor, Susan, who does not spend a lot of time “vetting” charities, immediately started a “Help Lillian Come Home” effort. Over the next three months she and Lillian’s neighbors rehabbed the ground level of the house. They put in new plumbing and electric, a new bathroom with a special shower and a new kitchen. They painted walls and hung new curtains, along with Lillian’s favorite pictures. Lillian will never have to climb stairs or fear needing a new home again.

Then there is Officer Thomas Wooten of the Houston, Texas, Police Department. He has a wife and two kids. He’s been a cop for two years in the fourth biggest city in the country, a place where cops can meet with sudden violence. A few months ago he ran into a homeless guy and his daughter. They had been sleeping on the floor of a homeless shelter. The man had family in Chicago, but no way to get there. In talking to them, Wooten recalled a time in his youth when his family had been homeless. He took them to the bus station and put them on a bus for Chicago and a new start. The tickets cost Wooten $334, nearly half his take-home income that week.

Sometimes I imagine a department store Santa whispering to each kid: “Tell your parents to stop buying all that stuff. It’s just money in the store’s pocket. Here’s the present from those who care for you and those you care for. Unqualified love. Every day. Pass it on.”

Columnist Henry Briggs, who has written for local newspapers for many years, can be reached at hbcolumn@gmail.com

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