Larry James says you don’t have to give gifts this holiday season. Best yet, you don’t have to feel guilty about skipping the entire gift-giving process.

“The people you are most connected to, the people you most care about, they’ll appreciate it,” says James, who is the executive director of Dallas Central Ministries in East Dallas. “You just have to find some creative way to do it.”

Of course, what James has in mind is not exactly sitting in a closet and ignoring what’s going on this month. Rather, it’s about thinking about the gift-giving process in a much different way.

In other words, forget flat-screen TVs, and focus on people who need a whole lot more.

Or, as James puts it: “Do something special and help someone this holiday season.”

James has an ulterior motive, since his group is one of the leading charities in the Dallas area. He insists — and quite convincingly — that we need to address hunger and poverty more than we need to buy flat-screen TVs. He argues that this time of year is too often seen as an opportunity to make amends for our failings to help during the other 11 months. And he is adamant: “The reality is that poverty is 12 months of the year. It’s not just something that happens at Christmas.”

I have written about this topic before, and it’s worth writing about again. The next 12 months do not look like they’re going to be much fun. Unemployment is up; the stock market is down; and the economy looks like it’s going to struggle for longer than will be good for anyone. Each day, someone, somewhere, will need something that they can’t afford, be it food or medicine or clothing.

Isn’t this the time when those of us who can afford to help, who have a responsibility to help because of our good fortune, should help?

James thinks so. He stopped exchanging presents with his wife and grown children years ago. Instead, his family takes the money they would use to buy stuff for each other and gives it to their favorite charities. Equally as important, they don’t make one lump sum donation, but space it out over 12 months. That way, the charity has a better idea about cash flow and isn’t scrambling to make payroll in March and April, when holiday donations are the last thing that most of us worry about.

Some gifts, of course, they can’t eliminate. The grandchildren still get theirs, and James acknowledges that there are some social and business situations that require gift giving. But for the rest of it? That’s what the checkbook is for.

“I don’t think most people that you’re close to are looking for gifts during the holidays,” says James. “I think they’re looking for a connection. When people give money to a group and they do it my honor, I really appreciate it.”

In this, there is much truth. A woman I know whose 38-year-old daughter died of cancer this summer has been touched, and in more ways than she could have imagined, by the donations made in her daughter’s name to their local hospital. It’s not so much the size of the donations, she says, but the number of them, knowing that so many people cared. It helps, says the woman, and it helps a lot.

Yes, the problems of the world can seem overwhelming, and it is difficult to believe that one check can make all that much difference. And it’s easy to barricade yourself behind a wall of stuff, if only because it blocks the sight of the world’s pain.

But it’s also easy to write a check. And, frankly, it feels a helluva lot better than a big screen could ever make you feel.

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