We’ll say it again

You will likely see a woman ringing a bell outside your favorite shopping mall. She’ll be wearing a funny vest and holding a red kettle. You’ll know who she is and what you ought to do: drop a few dimes or dollars into her Salvation Army kettle as you wrestle in your mind with a more pressing number—the amount you will allow yourself to spend on CDs, DVDs and TVs in the mega-store that lies beyond the smiling bell-ringer.

This is not a plea for increased giving this Christmas season. True, any coins you drop into a Salvation Army kettle and any canned-food item you drop into a Food Bank barrel will mean more food and warmth for someone. Likewise, any new, unwrapped toy you donate to the Salvation Army will make the underprivileged child who receives that gift feel more privileged at Christmas.

And any time you spend serving Christmas dinner to the homeless will likely be met with gratitude and a heightened feeling of thanksgiving. You are, after all, so blessed.

Christmas can really sock you in the gut, both with an intense feeling of pathos for the needy and with pity’s ugly shadow, guilt.

Perhaps this guilt has much to do with the vague unease that surfaces when you realize that little Ashley’s face on Christmas morning is not the holiday season wrap-up, but merely the precursor to the mammoth January MasterCard bill.

When that pang of guilt threatens to overwhelm us, we often respond by buying stuff for people who truly are in need.

There’s a problem here, but it’s not simply the politics of poverty and materialism or the psychology of short-term gratification and guilt. It’s a problem that stems from directing so much mental and spiritual energy into one day of the year. Christmas, as it exists in the popular imagination, is a time when all the things a human being longs for—love, togetherness, hope—are concentrated into one day.

Since we pin so much hope on that one day, we tend to forget that after the free Christmas meal, underprivileged people need comprehensive, sustained aid. So, instead of—or in addition to—giving to the needy at Christmas, think about volunteering next year at one of the area’s many charitable organizations. The Good Sheppard Clothing Closet (348-6605), Crisis Call Center (784-8090) and Interfaith Hospitality Network (284-5566) are good places to start. The Washoe County School District’s Children in Transition Program (850-8040) accepts school supplies and personal-care-item donations. Or contact United Way President Anne Cory (322-8668) to learn how to work directly with the homeless through Hands on Northern Nevada or to assist the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless in influencing local policy.