Christmas minus the inevitable commercialization

This year, Christmas will be a slightly different experience for me – but in a positive and, I hope, enduring way.

Every year, the question of what gifts to buy for family members arises. It’s a bit of a challenge, as each of us pretty have what we want. Gift cards have therefore become a common sight under the tree – it takes the pressure of trying to be creative with one’s shopping, and still manages to elicit a smile on a loved one’s face.

But this year, I’ve requested that instead of gifts, my family can donate to a mission trip I plan on being a part of in February. I’m heading for the region around Vicente Guerrero, Mexico for two weeks.

About 10 of us from my church here in Red Deer are joining up with another group from Saskatchewan for the venture. A Sherwood Park-based organization – Amigo Relief Mission – is handling all the organizational details, including the transportation and the means in which we will be helping out in various capacities there.

I’m really looking forward to it. It’s one of those rare times when I’ll be traveling to a different country but it won’t be all about me – rather, my focus will be on what I can do. Apparently there are lots of ways to serve, from community building projects to working with children and lending practical support to others who need a helping hand.

It reminds me of a trip I took back in 2002 with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to Nicaragua and Honduras. That was a food studies tour – an absolutely life-changing experience that introduced me to ways of life a world away from what I was used to.

For the first time in my life, I saw the ugliness of poverty up close. But I learned also about the importance of relationships and community life; there is joy in connecting with others and that’s a concept I believe people in the developing world understand better than we do in our individualistic North American.

These kinds of trips also tend to force things into a healthier, starkly realistic perspective. Getting up each day knowing that you are there to learn, observe, help, serve and give is a vital exercise for anyone. I’m confident my journey to Mexico will put me in touch with that sensibility once again.

Organizers have also asked us to bring along various donations, including milk powder and jars of peanut butter – important staples for people struggling with getting enough nutrition in a day. If that doesn’t make a person sit down and rethink their priorities in our insanely consumer-driven culture, I don’t know what does.

Of course, a person doesn’t have to travel far to be aware of the level of need among people – things are tough for many here at home. The number of Canadians turning to food banks, for example, is at an all-time high according to the HungerCount 2012 national study released this fall by Food Banks Canada.

After dipping slightly in 2011, food bank use in Canada increased by 2.4% this year, and is now a staggering 31% higher than before the 2008-2009 recession.

The HungerCount 2012 report highlights that in a typical month, food banks across the country provide food to more than three quarters of a million separate individuals – 882,000 people – and more than 339,000 (38%) of those helped are children.

In a relatively prosperous country like Canada, it’s difficult to really get a handle on that kind of data. Clearly, a challenge is extended to all of us to help out – here at home and abroad.

It reminds me of something singer Tom Jackson said during a chat we had last week about his coming Huron Carole concert, which raises funds for local food banks.

“I continue to say that the gift is in the giving,” he said. “The sooner we can spread that word, the sooner our world is going to change.” The gift is indeed in the ‘giving’.

And what better time to really learn that truth than during the Christmas season.