My friend Izzy set me this challenge and it’s been a lovely thing to do. The sort of thing that gives you a little warm glow inside. I am sending a box through the Samaritan Purse charity’s Operation Christmas Child scheme, and will be handing it over next week to Southlands Methodist Church down the road, where we attend a toddler playgroup on Wednesday mornings. It’s not normally in my nature to think about Christmas in October (despite the various efforts of high-street shops and mail order catalogues) but the boxes have an early deadline to allow for shipping.
Putting a box together is simple and fun. You basically decorate and fill a shoebox with a few small presents for a child, specifying age and gender if you wish. The charity’s website or readily available leaflets give gift suggestions for various different categories (e.g. education, play, hygiene), and you are asked to choose gifts from each of the categories. The gifts should be new rather than second-hand. Chocolate is a big no-no, but sweeties are allowed if their best-before date is after March 2013. Liquids, toy weapons and novels in English are also forbidden. You pay a £2.50 donation (online or in an envelope in your box) as a contribution towards shipping costs. If you pay online you can then download a unique barcode to put in your box so that you can subsequently find out where the box ended up. From the UK, it’s likely to be a destination in Eastern Europe.
I say simple, but wrapping up a shoebox isn’t actually that easy, I found. If anyone knows a way to do it neatly, then please share your secret with me. Hopefully the child who receives it won’t mind my battered, twisted Sellotape and torn, bunched up paper. I chose gifts for a girl aged 2-4, since this is the sort of child I know best, having one of my own at home. Inside the box (provided my choice of gifts is deemed suitable by the organisation), the recipient will find a rubber duck, some toothpaste, a toothbrush, a pair of bright pink earmuffs, two pairs of mittens, a hair clip, a wooden bracelet, a packet of Fruit Gums, a plastic shopping basket filled with material vegetables, a bouncy ball, a packet of coloured pencils, a novelty pencil sharpener and eraser, and a colouring book. The items were either toys that Charlotte had received duplicates of for her birthday, or were bought at Poundland, 3 for 2 offers at Boots and Tesco, on sale at the Designer Outlet, or from a friend who runs a toy stall at local Christmas fairs. No item cost me more than £1.35. I am not writing this to show you how ungenerous or impoverished I am myself, but rather to demonstrate that you can send some pretty good stuff without it costing the earth.
The charity is a Christian one, so we are told that someone is likely to slip a booklet of Bible stories into the box before it is given to its recipient and then invite the child to a church-led follow-on programme. As a staunch atheist, I would rather that they didn’t, but it won’t stop me sending the box. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and to make their own decisions regarding religion. I would not deprive a child of some fun or useful gifts just because I don’t happen to share the organisation’s faith, especially if the alternative is that the child receives nothing. The Operation Christmas Child leaflet stresses that boxes are distributed to children “based on need, regardless of their background or religious beliefs” and that they are “an unconditional gift, asking for nothing in return”. And so long as that it is true and that the child is told that the gift has come from someone in the UK who cares about their welfare and well-being rather than directly from God (which would be a lie), then that is good enough for me.