Two ideas disturb me: storage units filled with things that are not used for months (or years) at a time and gift exchanges.

That’s right. I dread the annual family gift exchange that involves buying something with no intended recipient, rolling a dice and ending up with a piece of plastic that no one wanted to begin with.

At Thanksgiving this year, my grandma passed around copies of letters from my cousin Jessica, who is volunteering with the Peace Corps in Panama. She wrote about eating two meals a day, consisting of a scoop of rice and a few kidney beans. She described her biweekly trek out of the mountains and into the city of David, where she collects her mail, picks up any items she needs and spends a bit of time at an Internet café. Then she hauls whatever needs hauling back up to her mountain home with a dirt floor. It takes two hours. She reported that she has never seen such poverty.

In lieu of gifts to each other, our extended family has decided to collect items Jessica requested for some craft classes she’d like to lead for the people in Panama. She asked for yarn, jewelry hardware and general supplies for the kids.

I think this is what Christmas should really be about. Who needs a countertop popcorn machine or a bedazzled phone sleeve when there are real human beings suffering in the world? How do you give back during the holidays?

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