Do I Say Yes To The Holiday Asks At the Checkout Counters?

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Dear Miriam,

The other day, I was checking out at the chain bookstore, and the cashier asked if I would like to purchase/donate a Christmas gift for needy children from the selection of books on the counter. I demurred, mumbling that I don’t endorse Christmas. So here’s my question: should non-Christians be expected to donate tacky gifts for Christian holidays? Had the request been for a children’s hospital, or a foodbank, or humanitarian relief I would not have hesitated.


Did not Donate


Dear Donate,

I have seen many articles lately about the rise of tipping on payment screens everywhere, even places where a worker is not directly interacting with the customer. A lot of people find these tip requests to be off-putting and confusing, while others find them to be a simple and unobtrusive way to support workers who are probably not otherwise making a living wage. 

I view the random “round up for charity” requests at check-out lines similarly. Most of the time, I don’t give my extra pennies to the charity listed on the screen because I like to be more thoughtful about my tzedakah and usually haven’t heard of the organization. However, I can see how these “virtual pushkes,” so to speak are an effective tool 1) for charities to get a little extra cash, 2) for corporations to look like they’re doing some good, and 3) for customers to feel like they’re making a difference without exerting any effort. 

This is all connected to your question, which is about Christmas gift-giving for Jews, but is also about how and when and why we support people we don’t know at times when we are actually engaged in another activity. Should you give money to get a kid a toy or book for Christmas even if you don’t celebrate Christmas? Sure, if it feels meaningful to you. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, kids who do celebrate it deserve to be happy, to feel joy, and to be taken care of. And if it doesn’t feel meaningful to you, it’s fine to say no. 

There are plenty of good reasons to say no, including that you give tzedakah in other ways, that you don’t like being asked in that manner at that time, or that you don’t think giving gifts like this is the best use of your resources. I am on the fence about “I don’t celebrate Christmas” as a reason, though perhaps your “I don’t endorse Christmas” is a stronger statement (though also one likely to be overlooked by a bookstore cashier).

There are, I think, also plenty of good reasons to say yes. When you are already buying books, the idea of giving someone else a book can be deeply resonant, sort of like the Bombas model of the company donating a pair of socks every time you buy a pair. For people shopping for books with children, buying a book for another child in view of your child can be a tangible and age-appropriate way to teach about generosity, privilege, and kindness. 

What if the books were being donated to patients at a children’s hospital, or given out along with non-perishable goods at a foodbank? Would that change your mind? What if you knew the bookstore had reached out to local social service agencies and found out that these toys and books were what was most needed, or what specific children had requested? I’m curious how these factors might impact your experience of the ask, even if the focus was still on Christmas. But also – the bookstore is a business, and if they want to drum up more business by getting people to buy more books, and to do it for a “cause,” I see no reason to begrudge them, even if you choose to say no. 

I hope you went home and made a donation to a charity that you deem to be a better recipient of your money. Maybe you even cleared off your bookshelf and found some books you could donate to a school or prison. Or maybe you resold some of your own possessions and donated the proceeds to a humanitarian cause. 

There are lots of ways to be a good person. There are lots of ways to “round up,” and give charity and exhibit generosity and provide support and resources where support and resources are needed. December is the time when most of mainstream America is looking for ways to give, and this store provided that opportunity. You never have to say yes when asked to donate, but, just because it’s Christmas-related, you also don’t have to say no. 

Be well,