My favorite holiday is Diwali, where people prepare for weeks, cleaning every corner of their homes, buy new clothes and sweets to give, and then fill the world with light on the darkest night of the year. My second favorite holiday is probably Christmas, a day of connection and abundance, and a celebration of our togetherness.

As a child, Christmas was magical. As an older child, it lost that enchantment for me as so much of the pure spirit at the core of Christmas became overshadowed by the schizophrenic madness of commercialism. With every Christmas, I started desperately wanting to make an escape so as to avoid the insanity of a meat-filled, tree-killing, day of expectations.

cuddapah01A few years ago, I decided to see if I could revive the Christmas magic by steering my family in a direction that included what was meaningful to me. Christmas is a celebration of selfless giving and the world is in no shortage of need. Instead of giving Uncle Harry another useless item that adds to our overstuffed garages and landfills, why not take that $10 along with all the other money spent on unwanted gifts, pool it together and use it where it actually makes a difference?

A couple years ago, we started the experiment and pooled money together to buy economical water pumps for farmers in Africa. The following year, we helped jumpstart a new wing at Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, that would begin treating children with cancerous eye tumors. Going about Christmas in this way is not easy as the old habits are deeply engrained. It takes preparation to coordinate something different and it can also lack the immediate gratification of gifts galore – but it just has so much more soul.

cuddapah02Before we left for India, Mark said that he only had one request for this trip – to visit his friend, Swarna, who had started an orphanage/elderly home in Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh. Her idea was a novel one. By pairing the two groups together, orphaned children could receive extra love and attention from the elderly, and this neglected group could in turn be surrounded by more happy and youthful energy. Add to this combination a group of workers who are mostly widowed or abandoned wives, and you get a complete family where once there was much loneliness.

We have such an impossible schedule that it wasn’t looking like visiting Swarna was going to happen, but we made it happen, heading to her orphanage for Christmas Eve and Christmas. The orphanage/elderly home, Nav Jeevan (soon to be moving to Tamil Nadu), is very Christian, but you get the sense that this place is not about propagating a belief system as it is about working in harmony with the genuine spirit of Jesus, a la Mother Theresa.

Spearheaded by Mark, we went out shopping and bought cricket bats and colorful balls, badminton sets, color markers, little purses, flowery handkerchiefs, candies, and toothbrushes, and put them all together in colorful tootsie roll-like gift packs for all the 50 children. For the kids, it was totally unexpected. After playing Santa at 4am, we awoke to sounds of a happy riot in the morning by the tree as they reveled in the joy.

cuddapah03We decided that for the older folks, we would have the kids all draw their names from hats and make them cards with their new markers. The older crowd enjoyed it immensely!

Later in the day, we took them all to the park for a rare field trip.

Our visit was a huge success and so much fun. You wouldn’t believe how precious these kids are – particularly when they pinch your cheeks and then kiss their hands – in an overflowing gesture of affection.

disabledA week earlier, we had a similar experience when we went on a shopping spree for a group of physically and mentally disabled kids in Chennai, spearheaded by Maria, whose brother had spent months working there.

This kind of giving is awesome – when you know you are giving unexpected joy and not just satiating a developing greed.

My guess is that many families must also be tired of the over-abundant Christmas and might want to consider what our family has tried. Giving to a nonprofit is fine, but it’s even more optimal if ever you have the opportunity to connect directly with where your gift is going.