The gift is in the giving, says Alternatives

Christmas was approaching. But Joseph Griffith decided he did not want to just rush out and buy something for his mother. He wanted to give her something ''less commercial.''

What he and his wife, Jan, came up with was a simple piece of paper on which was written an offer to provide the mother and her friends with a special dinner in the mother's home. The mother and son both live in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The mother, Lorraine Griffith, took them up on it the following Valentine's Day and invited six of her closest friends over for the scrumptous, memorable meal.

''I'd rather have someone do something for me than give me a bauble I don't need,'' says Mrs. Griffith of her son's gift. She liked it ''10 times better'' than a store-bought item.

In Martinsville, Ind., elementary-school cook Betty McKinney got an unexpected-but-much-needed Christmas gift one year from the school janitor, Steven Sanders: $500 for airfare, so that her son, who was in the Army, could fly back from Hawaii to be home for the first Christmas in three years.

''I just didn't have the money just then, '' she recalls. So she asked Mr. Sanders for help. He gave her the money the same day with no expectation of getting it back, though she has since paid him back most of it.

''It was just a gift,'' says Sanders, who at the time was earning only about best time; of course I'd like to do it all year round,'' he says.

These are among the recent Christmas gifts of recent years cited by a small organization here which tries to promote thoughtful gift giving. Known simply as Alternatives, the nonprofit organization encourages people to use Christmas as an opportunity to express their care for people - family and beyond - in a meaningful, creative way.

''With the tremendous preoccupation in giving gifts,the religious significance seems to be lost,'' he says. ''We see faith being obscured by the terrific materialism of our culture,'' says Alternatives director Milo Shannon-Thornberry. An ordained United Methodist minister, the Rev. Mr.Shannon-Thornberry once spent six years teaching seminary students in Taiwan (in Mandarin) and has worked for the National Council of Churches on world food programs. He gradually became convinced that hunger is the most serious problem the world faces today.

Christmas, he says, can be a time of showing concern for those who are in need. Thoughtful Christmas giving can be an expression of that concern, he says.

''How do we really honor the birth of the one whose coming was to be good news to the poor?'' he asks.

Donating time or money to world or local hunger organizations or programs for the homeless are appropriate Christmas gifts, he suggests.

That would leave less money for gifts for family members. But, he suggests, there are many alternative gifts that can be offered fairly inexpensively and perhaps with added meaning, such as the dinner given to Mrs. Griffiths.

Americans may spend up to $26 billion on Christmas buying in December, says Martin Lefkowitz, an economist with the US Chamber of Commerce. That includes some $10.5 billion that will be spent in department and other general-merchandise stores; $2.3 billion in food stores; $3 billion in apparel stores; $1.3 in clothing stores; and $700 million in liquor stores.

''We're not saying you shouldn't give a gift to celebrate Christmas,'' Shannon-Thornberry explains. But he's just not satisfied with the massive amount of spending on Christmas gifts, often on items he believes people don't really need.

Alternatives was started in 1973 by Robert Kochtitzky, who now works with self-help programs for low-income families in Jackson, Miss. The group distributes inserts to church bulletins across the country each year, suggesting that congregation members set aside some 25 percent of what they might normally spend on Christmas celebrations (including travel costs) and donate it to organizations serving the needy. And through its own catalog and other publications, Alternatives recommends various gift ideas, many of them things made by the giver.

One pamphlet offers these suggestions for gifts: giving time cooking something special; sewing an item; framing a picture; rebinding an old book; building a spice rack, window box, or bird feeder; planting something; stringing a necklace; writing a family history (including photos).

''There is almost an assumption that the way to express love is by buying something,'' says Shannon-Thornberry.

His organization's yearly awards for best Christmas gifts show that money isn't always so important. One recent winner was a 146-page cookbook of favorite family recipes given to a Colorado woman by her sister in Texas. Alternatives awards $100 each year to a charity designated by the person who received the gift.

(Alternatives: P.O. Box 1707, Forest Park, Ga. 30051)

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