This holiday season practice better retail therapy

There's never been a more urgent time to be generous

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 18, 2016 11:58PM (EST)

It's hard to feel very ho ho ho right now. If you're anything like the large number of Americans nauseated at the thought of a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed businessman who lost the popular vote entering the White House, those snowflake-dusted holiday displays and piercing Mariah Carey vocals are not helping your vibe right now.

And yet, those stockings aren't going to stuff themselves. So how about this year we conscientiously spread cheer in ways that matter most? How about we embrace the spirit of the season, with generosity and kindness? While still, of course, spending money.

While white supremacists are celebrating and hate crimes are surging, now's the time to support black-owned businesses. Quirky Brown Love has a great resource guide for online shops. And with reproductive rights in the crosshairs, and a self-proclaimed pussy grabber soon at the helm, throw some love at women owned and operated businesses, too

But you most likely don't have to search online, though, for immigrant-, minority- or female-owned businesses to shop this year. It's called the real world and it works fine, too. Go local, and patronize small businesses in your own community. Does your town have a holiday market? This is often an even better bet than online for fresh food items to gift or to just stock up on for entertaining.

Of course, you don't have give stuff at all. There's a growing movement toward acknowledging that while meaningful tangible gifts to the people closest to us — and for kids — are fine, we don't have to turn on the gift hose for everybody. We can commit to spending less on useless doodads to unwrap and agree instead to exchange with friends and family a donation to our favorite causes.

Do you really need novelty salt and pepper shakers or an ironically ugly sweater as much as your local homeless shelter needs a few bucks right now? Come on. And kids can learn charity, too. From a very young age, my daughters have supported Heifer with a few bucks from their own banks each year. Kids love supporting causes that help other kids, too, so organizations like Unicef are a great way for them to get involved. Teach them that generosity is an essential part of the season.

Or if you prefer the passive-aggressive approach to benevolence, you could always be charitable in the name of someone who really ticks you off. Since the election, more than 20,000 people have donated to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence's name. If a side of spite is what's opening your wallet this year, I can't object to the result.

And if you can't decide between a little swag or a little charity, do both. Just proceed with caution when you see retail items that vaguely promise that "a portion" of proceeds from the sale go to a cause — especially if it's one you've never heard of. A smarter option is to shop directly from an organization you support. The American Civil Liberties UnionPlanned Parenthood, GLAAD and the Southern Poverty Law Center all offer their own merchandise, as do countless other worthy organizations. Besides, you can never have too many tote bags! 

This is a bleak moment in our history, and it feels weird to smile and drink cocoa through it. But kindness and compassion and doing good for others is a balm to our collective anxiety and the truest expression of the time of year. And if we can't bring joy to the world right now, we can light a few corners of it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Charity Christmas Gifts Giving Holidays Minority-owned Businesses Retail Shopping Surviving The Holidays