Members of First Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y., are getting back in touch with the true spirit of Christmas, thanks to the Greater Good Project. It all started earlier this year when co-ministers the Rev. Kaaren Anderson and the Rev. Scott Tayler invited their 750-member congregation to participate in the project by cutting holiday spending in half and donating the money saved to two charities through the church.
Cutting back on a holiday like Christmas can be hard, but members of the congregation proved they were up to the challenge. On Sunday, December 17, members and friends filled baskets at the front of the church with envelopes containing a total of $64,000 in checks and cash.
“It was everything that we had hoped for,” said Tayler. “It was very humbling to experience the great power we have when we join our resources for a common task. It was a leap of faith to do this and we are very grateful for how people responded.” Additional contributions to the project will be accepted until January 1, he said.
Among those contributing were Don Kamin, his wife Wendi Cross, and their 12-year-old son Max Kamin-Cross. “We have felt increasingly that some of the spirit of the season was missing in our family holiday celebrations,” said Kamin. “We all have quite enough things and don’t really need more.”
For Kamin and Cross, cutting back on Christmas meant paring their holiday card list by 30 to 40 percent and halving the amount spent on gifts for people outside their immediate family. In addition, they’ll buy fewer gifts for extended family. Together with other family members, the Kamin-Cross family decided that each of the cousins would buy or make a gift for one other cousin rather than buying for all of them as had been the custom.
Don, Wendi, and Max will be saving in another way this season, by giving each other gifts of time—a carwash, a movie night, etc. “We’re resisting the malls, sales, and impulse purchases,” said Cross. “I can’t tell you how great it is not to have to go to the mall. It reduces the holiday stress so much.” They estimate they’re saving several hundred dollars by all this.
Max got into the spirit early by designing a red and green wristband advertising the church project. The wristband caught on and hundreds of people at church are wearing them. “He was very inspired thinking about the kinds of good work we could do when we all pooled our resources,” said Cross.
Kamin’s family tradition is Jewish and that meant that Max usually got gifts on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. That’s down to four nights this year. “It’s not so bad,” said Max. “I get so much anyway that I’m okay with only four nights. And it just feels good to know the money that we’re saving and donating is going to a good cause.”
The money collected Sunday and throughout the rest of the month will be donated to two charities that were selected by the children and youth in the church’s religious education program.
The first charity is local, Family and Friends of Murdered Children, a group that provides support to families that have been victims of violence to children. The second project will support efforts to provide clean water to San José, San Marcos de Sierra, a village in Honduras, through the University of Rochester’s Family Medicine Department. Tim Wilson, the Rochester congregation’s director of social justice, helped develop a list of projects for the children to choose from.
Part of the appeal of the Greater Good project for Kamin was that a large amount of money collected could be used to make a tangible impact. “As a group we could give big and make a difference to one project in a way that our individual donations to charities, as important as they are, can never do.”
First Unitarian members Ed Wiltse and Jeanne Holden-Wiltse had already done a fair bit to scale back Christmas materialism in their house. But when the Greater Good Project came along they decided to do more.
“We talked with our kids [Sophia, 8, and Alex, 11] about it and once they’d gone through the process with their church school friends of selecting the two projects to donate to, they were OK with it,” said Wiltse. The family talked about the program with their extended family and they agreed to cut out a Secret Santa program (where each person bought a gift for one other person). In their immediate family they’re giving fewer presents to each other this year. “The kids have typically gotten five or six presents each and we’ll reduce that by one or two,” said Wiltse. They’re also making gifts for each other this year.
“I think it’s fine,” said Sophia. “It’s good that we’re donating money instead of buying more presents. I’ll get some homemade presents and that’s better sometimes. I know that my mom really likes homemade presents from me.”
The family is also spending less on hosting holiday gatherings. Some have become potlucks and others feature simple foods like chili and cornbread. “We’re making granola for some of our friends as a gift,” said Wiltse.
To prepare the congregation for reducing Christmas spending, the church hosted a workshop on handmade gifts. There was also a class on the books Unplug the Christmas Machine and Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas. Another class taught how to do a Christmas budget, including financial spreadsheets.
“We asked everyone to participate in cutting back,” said Anderson. “We presented it as a way for us to make a significant contribution to our local community, to meet the mission of our church and to bring religious significance back to the holiday.”
She said there was a little resistance from two groups, older teens who were counting on their parents for significant electronic items, and grandparents who wanted to give gifts to grandchildren. “We helped them understand that first and foremost, what kids want is time with family and friends,” said Anderson. “One grandmother is asking her grandchildren to teach her a game she doesn’t know. Her grandson is teaching her to play chess and he’s happy that he’ll have one more person to play with.”
Anderson said she expects that two thirds of the congregation will participate in the program. “It’s easier if a whole religious community does it,” she said. “That way when the kids come on Sunday all of their friends are doing the same thing they are. It’s made children think about Christmas in a new way.”
see below for links related to this story.
- First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York.Includes information on the Greater Good project to halve holiday spending. (rochesterunitarian.org)
- Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season. By Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli. Harper, 1991. (Amazon.com)
- Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas. By Bill McKibben. Simon & Schuster, 1998. (Amazon.com)