A volunteer, right, helps a woman find gifts for her children during the Christmas Blessing Project, an annual giveaway that allows needy community members to shop for holiday gifts. (Mike Crupi/CNS, via Catholic Courier)

By Effie Caldarola
Catholic News Service

The Christmas season is wonderful, but it sometimes induces a measure of guilt. Those of us who are spiritually thirsty yet who live immersed in a commercial and secular culture feel a certain tension in December.

Jesus spent His life reaching out to the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. And yet here we are, sometimes overwhelmed by our own Christmas overconsumption, waste and distraction.

How can we align our Christmas celebration more closely with our Christian values?

Reaching out in service to others can help us bridge this dichotomy.

Each day of Advent should begin with prayer. Pray that your Advent season might be marked by greater simplicity and service.

Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS)

Writing checks is important, but this Christmas set a goal of personal contact with those on the margins. This is important to them, but imperative for us. Like the Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man, we are compelled to reach out to those who may seem like “others” to us. It’s our duty, but also our salvation.

Charities need help all year long, but we’re lucky that during the holiday season they publicize countless ways to get involved. If you have children, they’ll dig right in and will receive a valuable lesson.

Maybe your parish sponsors a Christmas party for a shelter. A local group collects and distributes toys. The food bank may need extra help. The local senior citizens’ home welcomes carolers. A resettlement agency offers projects for refugees. An assisted living facility might point you toward an elder with no family.

Don’t just give “stuff,” but become involved with the recipients.

Here are two important things to remember when you agree to serve: First, forget that dreadful phrase “those less fortunate.” Just because someone is down on their luck or in a lower income bracket does not deem them “unfortunate” or “less.” They are our equals and beloved in the eyes of God. Approach them not with pity but as your own beloved and someone from whom you have much to learn. Be fully present.

Second, do not think of your service as a one-time Christmas event. Imagine it giving you exposure to a charity you might want to continue to serve. Keep your eyes open this season for opportunities for service that seem to fit your gifts. Think of your commitment as a springboard to further action.

Some service may be closer to home. There’s someone in your neighborhood, your family or your parish who is lonely. Reach out with the gift of time. Surprise them with a phone call. Dropping off cookies is kind but inviting someone to share dessert or a meal with you is even better. No time to bake? A box of store-purchased cookies shared over coffee would be a precious gift to a lonely person.

If you want to think globally, check out Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas charitable arm of the U.S. Church. They offer a catalogue where you and your children can find gifts in any price range. Buy back-to-school kits or mosquito nets for a family or go much bigger with items like a community water station. If the impossible person who has everything is on your list, consider a small gift of food or time, and a bigger gift given to CRS in their name.

You or your children can serve by heading for your own closet. Find gently used clothing or toys, make sure they’re clean, complete and in good shape and donate them to a thrift stop where someone on a limited budget will delight in finding them, or to a charity requesting used items.

Discuss paring down Christmas giving lists. Eliminate wasteful stocking stuffers and elaborate packaging. Instead, focus on gifts of time and service.

You’ll find yourself amply gifted in return.

Effie Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.