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I don't know about you guys, but where we live, the whole holiday shopping frenzy is in full force.  And this year, I am waaaaaaay behind.  As in, I've done almost no shopping, and that feeling of panic has begun to set in that I'm going to have to slog through crowded malls with crabby people as penance for working really hard during election season instead of doing my shopping early.

But the whole commercialization of the holidays really ticks me off.  I mean, I love being able to give someone a present and seeing that joy when you and they realize that it is perfect for them.  But it takes an awful lot of searching to pull that off and, frankly, I'm way behind the curve this year.  Which makes me very stressed out.  And knowing that every store is going to be filled with equally stressed out people and signs screaming "SALE" and "BUY" and "ARRRRGH" (okay, not really, but aren't you feeling that every time you go to the store these days?), well, it's just irritating and exhausting.

And that is not how I want to feel this time of year, because I love Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And when I say I love it, I mean it — our house is a huge eruption of decorations every year, beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving until just after New Year's.  But I like to be able to sit back and enjoy the shining lights of my efforts, not have to run around in a frenzy the whole season, which is why I'm usually done with the bulk of my shopping by now.

Not this year.

So when RevDeb suggested that I consider doing a Saturday morning post on gifts that give back…well, that's really perfect, isn't it?  Who wouldn't want to shop where their dollars were actually doing some good both for the person receiving the gift and for the folks selling the gift or service?  (Thanks, RevDeb — great idea!)

When I asked around in the comments for everyone's favorite holiday charities, I got some fantastic suggestions.  And Peterr sent along a link to a great story that I wanted to share with everyone this morning: 

For 26 years, the man Kansas City knows as Secret Santa has freely given away money — $100 bills by the handful — to hundreds of down-on-their-luck folks.

He never has told them who he is. Instead, he has remained anonymous, an unnamed Jackson County businessman thrilled to share the joy of a little extra cash at the holidays.

But things have changed.

He has cancer, and this year is probably the last for a “sleigh ride.”

He wants to start speaking to community groups about his devotion to random acts of kindness. He can’t exactly do that with a bag over his head, he jokes.

So Secret Santa is ready to go public. He wants to inspire us to give as much time and money to others as we can.

That’s easier to do if we know he wasn’t born into wealth. And if we know just how good Secret Santa feels when he quietly says, “You must have dropped this,” passes along a crisp greenback and whispers, “Merry Christmas.”

It turns out that this wonderful man has cancer. But his story is so inspirational, you can't help but hope that a whole bunch of folks who are able to do so think about taking up the red, furry hat and passing on the tradition. Or at least take a little time during the holidays to give a little to someone less fortunate.

Things are tight this year for a lot of charities, at least the ones around where we live. The local mission has a lot of homeless women and kids this year, going into the holiday season this is unusual, and folks around here have been trying to up their donations to give the kids as decent a holiday as they can have at a homeless shelter. We're filling a bunch of Salvation Army stockings for kids in our area. If you don't have the money to buy stuff, most shelters are always looking for volunteers to help with the cooking and serving of meals, or with donations of canned goods or whatever else needs doing, including help with handy work when it's needed.  This has been true for every charity or shelter group with whom I have ever volunteered, btw:  so if you are handy as a carpenter or electrician or something like that and could volunteer time, there is probably a group that could put you to work.  (I know our local Humane Society is always very grateful for that kind of volunteer help.)

But on to the ideas that I got.  These are truly great, and I'm going to list them in no particular order.

Heifer International (This one was sent by so many readers — I love this group!)

Conservation Calling (sent by Rosalind)

ShopNola.org (I can personally vouch for the yummy-ness of the Aunt Sally's pralines.)

ABCHome&Planet Foundation  (Found this via an Oprah magazine, and they have some lovely donation ideas and links.)

Bead For Life (sent by Millineryman, who says these meet the "very cool" standard for teenagers)

Ten Thousand Villages (sent by "GB")

Defenders of Wildlife (sent by An Angry Old Broad)

Treehouse for Kids (sent by Strategerie, and I adore this one — having worked with so many kids in the foster care system, something like this can mean the world to a child at a time when the world seems like it is crashing in around them.)

Best Friends (sent by "JB")

Mercycorps (sent by "JB")

The Hunger Site (sent by SadieSue)

World Shoppe (another Oprah mag find)

Many Hands Blankies

Any Soldier

Operation Holiday Joy (for military families)

Alpha Workshops

This is by no means a comprehensive list — and please do consider local homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, the local humane society, and a whole host of other groups in your area who could probably use a donation in someone's name to help with their bottom line — rising heating costs are cutting into a lot of budgets this year, so every little bit helps.

I may have missed a few suggestions, too, juggling blogging and the sick Peanut and my own bout with the latest ick, so I apologize if the one you sent or commented on isn't listed above, it wasn't intentional, only a product of being a tired and sick momma this week.  But please, share some more of your favorites in the comments below.  There are so many ways to spend our pennies for the holidays — wouldn't it be nice if some of our pennies not only made the gift recipient happy, but also helped someone else out who really needed the hand up?

I don't know about you guys, but that truly has "holiday spirit" written all over it.  Can't wait to read more of your suggestions and thoughts on this, so pull up a chair…

(The above illustration is, of course, from the iconic  A Charlie Brown Christmas by the wonderful Charles M. Shulz.  If you've never seen it, you can catch a YouTube of a bit of it here.  And rent this movie…your inner child will thank you.)