Pennies in the Hat

Pennies in the Hat

Christmas can be a consumeristic orgy, but consider some gift-giving alternatives to improve the world.


As fate would have it, the very first holiday card to show up in my mailbox was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a devoted member and fan. It carried the witty and timely message, "Reason's Greetings." Now more than ever! Just think of the damage religious mania (combined, as it tends to be, with nationalism and patriarchy) has wrought around the globe this year, the first of the new millennium–the World Trade Center attack, the Taliban, suicide bombers in Israel versus yet more settlements on the West Bank. And that's not even mentioning our own home-grown fanatics, like the recently apprehended fugitive Clayton Lee Waagner, who threatened to murder forty-two abortion clinic workers and who is the main suspect in some 550 anthrax-hoax letters to clinics, or the mainstreaming of conservative religious views, as in the explosion of abstinence-only sex education and theologically motivated restrictions on stem-cell research.

I've never been one for the hundred-dollar Christmas promoted by Bill McKibben–gee, thanks for the socks! and is that genuine New York City tap water in that cleverly decorated old Thunderbird bottle? Too depressing. Norah Vincent, the right-wing columnist, took McKibben to task in Salon a few years ago for advocating holiday frugality: Why, the whole economy would collapse, she argued, if Americans didn't get out there and buy buy buy. This year everyone from George W. Bush on down is urging us to shop till we drop, or the terrorists will have won. But you can please both Bill and Norah, enjoy the contrasting pleasures of spending and self-denial, do good and still get that holiday buzz from standing in long lines in a too-hot coat while carrying too many things: Simply buy stuff for needy organizations that help people instead of for your overindulged relatives, friends and yourself. For example, visit your local independent bookstore while it still exists and pick up a few paperbacks for Books Through Bars (see for a drop-off location near you; or send donations to Books Through Bars NYC, c/o Bluestockings Books, 172 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002). No travel guides or romances please, and no hardcovers–choose dictionaries, fiction by people of color, science, non-US history. Or help battered New York City, where the mayor proposes deep budget cuts for schools and libraries, by giving new children's books to public schools through PENCIL (c/o Ben Iglesias, New York City Board of Education, 44-36 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City, NY 11101).

Shopping aside, this is the year to use your holiday donations to take a stand for secularism and against all churches (and synagogues and mosques) militant. If you don't already belong to the the aforementioned Freedom From Religion Foundation (PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701;, now's the moment to sign up: The foundation is fearless, tireless and clever in supporting separation of church and state and opposing the increasingly bold power moves of the godly. If it sticks in your craw that evangelical seminarians are teaching the Bible as "truth" in Tennessee public schools, support the group that's trying to stop them.

With Christian fundamentalist churches on a jihad against reproductive freedom for women, don't forget The National Network of Abortion Funds (c/o CLPP, Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002;, an umbrella organization of state and local funds that finance abortions for poor women. Help from the NNAF can mean the difference between sickness and health, unemployment and college, staying in an abusive relationship or starting a new life–or even life and death.

And remember Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, the two Sisters of Notre Dame who resigned from their order after the Vatican came down hard on them for signing an ad in 1984 affirming that Catholics had many different positions on abortion? They're alive and well and living in Charleston, West Virginia, where they've been running the ecumenically based Covenant House (1109 Quarrier Street, Charleston, WV 25301;, which helps people with AIDS, the homeless and the poor and works for public school reform and other progressive campaigns in Appalachia.

With the economy officially in recession, joblessness up and tens of thousands of welfare recipients about to hit their five-year lifetime limit on benefits, there's no time like the present to support poor people's activism. The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support is the coalition of grassroots groups that is leading the fight around the reauthorization of welfare reform coming up in 2002 (1000 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007;

Finally, the World Trade Center tragedy has fallen particularly hard on the service workers and undocumented immigrants who toiled in the towers: They or their survivors have gotten little out of the millions collected by the World Trade Center Relief Fund and the Red Cross. Thanks to welfare reform, which bars even legal immigrants from most federal safety-net programs, noncitizen mothers now suddenly sole heads of families find themselves ineligible for many essential benefits. To help now-jobless workers from Windows on the World restaurant and the families of those who perished there, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the HERE NY Assistance Fund (Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012;

Checkbook running on empty? If you have e-mail, you can sign yourself and friends up with and finally keep that New Year's resolution to stay in touch with your Congressperson. Founder Jim Harris and crew research and produce dozens of e-mails each month on issues from Arctic drilling to racial profiling. If you approve the contents, they'll send them to the appropriate authority in your name. There is no easier way to make your opinion known–one cynic of my acquaintance compared it to spinning a prayer wheel. Hey, right-wingers out-e-mail progressives many times over, and look at the way the country's going–maybe they're on to something.

It was a terrible year, but it's almost over. Reason's greetings!

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