When did Christmas shopping become a patriotic duty, the contemporary equivalent of collecting tin cans in World War II? 9/11 is partly to blame–remember when Bush told Americans to do their bit for the nation by going shopping? But the big reason, of course, is the economy. The media pores over the mall receipts for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the way Roman augurs inspected the entrails of pigeons: Will America have the “consumer confidence” to spend its way into prosperity? Nobody’s talking about putting the Christ back in Christmas anymore, and no wonder. Christ was a notorious cheapskate and do-it-yourselfer–his idea of a present was to give you some wine he’d made out of water. What would happen to the liquor industry (which does $3.7 billion in business during the holiday season) if everybody started doing that?

Isn’t there a better way to run the economy than by hectoring people into buying expensive, unnecessary items in order to exchange them with others who have done exactly the same thing? I don’t know about you, but my closet is full of clothes, my shelves groan with unread books and unwrapped CDs, and I don’t want any more electronic devices–I am still trying to program the clock in the no-longer-functional microwave, a pointless appliance if ever there was one. You can reheat Chinese food perfectly well on the stove. I wouldn’t say no to a very young kitten, all gray with no stripes, but that is the sort of present that finds you.

Wouldn’t it make more sense, I am trying to say, to pay directly for the social goods consumer spending is theoretically supposed to produce? Instead of buying more sweaters individually, in the hope that somewhere down the line jobs are created, housing is built, property taxes are paid and eventually a school gets money for new library books, why not skip the sweater and buy the books, right now, while the kids are still alive? If consumerism was the way to pay for our communal needs–education, healthcare, affordable housing, clean air, not to mention truth, justice, equality and beauty–we would surely have those things by now. Instead, we have tax cuts for the rich and Wal-Marts for the rest of us.

Fortunately, there are other ways to spend those holiday dollars, especially now that web-based organizations like MoveOn.org, and the Democratic presidential candidates’ websites, make donating as easy as impulse shopping. Here are a few small-scale, low-to-no-overhead projects that could do a lot with a little:

Remember Afghan women? Depending on who’s talking, they are making progress, standing still or losing ground, but no one disputes that they are in dire need of education, work, human rights and healthcare: Afghanistan has among the highest maternal mortality rates and lowest female literacy rates in the world. Fahima Vorgetts, a Maryland-based Afghan refugee who is on the board of Women for Afghan Women, is the guiding spirit behind HAWCA and HOOWA, nonprofits focused on giving Afghan women the education–basic, advanced and vocational–that they need to become self-sufficient. Among Vorgetts’s projects are a school in Kandahar and one in Peshawar for refugees; literacy, computer, sewing and embroidery classes; dairy and poultry projects for rural widows; and material aid for returning refugees. Send your check–which will go a long way in Afghanistan, where a family can live for a week for the price of a pizza–to Women for Afghan Women/Afghan Women’s Fund, 55 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21401.

Remember New York City? After 9/11, all kinds of wonderful things were supposed to happen, but two years later the city is still stressed out and struggling. Next time you’re on the Internet, go to www.donorschoose.org and browse among proposals from classroom teachers, almost all based in poor schools serving minority students, and contribute to whichever one appeals to you. You can fund a classroom library for first graders in Staten Island; support a champion chess team in the Bronx; give each teen in a Brooklyn history class a review book for the Regents test. You won’t only be helping some of the most underserved children in the country, you’ll be supporting their teachers, too.

Remember Africa? In Kenya and Tanzania high school tuition is more than some families earn in a year, and parents often prefer to educate sons. The Canadian Harambee Education Society, a secular humanist project, pays tuition for poor girls who have done well on the entrance exams and provides the help they need to succeed in school. The organization’s slogan, “We can’t do everything…but we can do something!” is apparently quite a motivator: In 1985 they underwrote twenty-five students; last year it was nearly 400. You can fund one girl’s education for $400 Canadian or $305 US, but any amount will be gratefully accepted. Send checks to CHES, 446 Kelley Street, New Westminster, BC V3L3T9, Canada; www.canadianharambee.ca.

Remember Greensboro, North Carolina? On November 3, 1979, Klansmen and Nazis opened fire on members of the Communist Workers Party who were staging an anti-Klan demo, killing five. (One of them was my old friend from Harvard Divinity School, Bill Sampson, an antiwar activist, a union organizer and a lovely and harmless man.) Two all-white juries exonerated the killers; in June 1985, survivors won a civil suit against their attackers, the Greensboro police and a police informant. You can honor the dead and help progressive organizing in the South with a donation to the Greensboro Justice Fund, PO Box 1594, Northampton, MA 01061; www.gjf.org.

Finally, the incredibly energetic feminist writer and organizer Jennifer Baumgardner (you’ve seen her byline in The Nation) has had the brilliant idea of producing a video featuring women who’ve had abortions and are really glad they had that right–offering a counterstory to what’s becoming the dominant narrative, in which ending a pregnancy is a trauma from which a woman never recovers. The video is part of a larger project to recast the Roe v. Wade anniversary (January 22) as I’m Not Sorry Day, complete with T-shirts and public events. Jennifer’s seeking stories as well as donations. You can share yours or find out how you can contribute by e-mailing her at jennifer@manifesta.net.