The secular approach to Christmas often involves frenzied shopping in overcrowded stores, or frenetic online buying that can leave buyers feeling exhausted and empty. In a unique approach to re-center on the reason for the season and combat the consumerism of the holidays, many UCC congregations hold Alternative Christmas Markets — a chance for shoppers to find gifts that keep giving.
Congregational UCC of Neenah Menasha, Wis., and Congregational UCC of Iowa City, Iowa, are two such churches. The Wisconsin congregation held its market Nov. 18, and the Iowa church held two markets — Nov. 18 and Dec. 2. "We initially had this event on one Sunday," said the Rev. Bill Lovin, pastor of the Iowa City congregation. "Several years ago, the Mission Board decided to hold two alternative giving Sundays — to reach both early and late shoppers."
The premise is simple: shoppers visit various display tables at the market and select from a variety of charities to support. Their donations help provide food, water, clothing, shelter and more to people in need throughout the world. When shoppers make donations in honor of friends or family members, they receive cards to present to their loved ones explaining the program supported by the gift.
At the Iowa church, the gift cards are extra special. "A member of our congregation who is a calligrapher writes out the information" on the cards, Lovin said. In addition to such international charities as the Blanket Program of Church World Service, Habitat for Humanity, and the Heifer Project, the market also features handmade items, with the proceeds benefiting several local nonprofit agencies. Pottery and knitted items were featured this year.
"We also have a Mitten Tree, and collect money for the local 'Project Holiday' that provides food at Christmas, the Johnson County Crisis Center, and Toys for Tots," Lovin added.
For the Wisconsin church, the market provides "church members and the community a way to give more meaningful gifts that help others," said church member Marcia Fry. "We sell symbolic gifts for Church World Service, Heifer, [and] the Kenya Works Makini Pad Initiative," a program that provides eco-friendly sanitary pads to adolescent girls and women (Makini means "dignity" in Swahili).
The Neenah Menasha market also supports several local charities, including the local Habitat for Humanity ("We founded the local chapter at our church and have helped Fox Valley Habitat grow exponentially," said Fry); the Samaritan Counseling Center; LEAVEN, a poverty assistance clearing house; the Neenah Menasha Emergency Society; and Friendship Place, a drop-in center for people with mental illnesses.
Additionally, the Fond du Lac, Wis., Just Fare shop sells merchandise at the market, and the congregation sells donuts made from "a very old recipe, well-known in our community," Fry said, adding that all of the monies raised go to worthwhile charities outside the church.
Both events rely on congregational and community support. Some 60-to-75 lawn signs advertising the market were distributed within a two-mile radius of the Neenah Menasha church, said Fry, along with flyers and small posters in community locations. "Our neighboring Catholic church even put out a lawn sign!" she said.
For the Iowa City congregation, the two events are a highlight of the church year. "This is a program that members look forward to each year," said Lovin. "The items and the programs supported change — and the spirit of generous giving continues to grow and develop among us."
Global Ministries, the joint overseas mission arm of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has a number of alternative giving resources. Learn more here.