Their historical influences are many. For Christians, gifts and generosity are stressed not only on the Dec. 25 celebration of Jesus’ birth but also during the “12 days of Christmas” that follow, and the four-week penitential season of Advent that precedes it.
Though Thanksgiving was founded as a secular American holiday, its celebration on the fourth Thursday of November typically coincides with the last days of the traditional Christian church year — another time when Bible readings emphasize service to others.
Gift-giving and the nurturing of human community are also reinforced by spiritual traditions outside the Christian sphere, such as the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah and the African-American observance of Kwanzaa.
Here, see how Nebraskans are epitomizing the spirit of the season.
Steven Olson, Mary Our Queen Council No. 11700, Knights of Columbus, Omaha
“Each year, our council purchases 100 to 150 bicycles needing assembly. During our eagerly anticipated annual Christmas party, member families assemble all the bicycles in about 1½ hours. The bikes are distributed later to those in need at the Winnebago Indian Reservation and other charities. Later on assembly day, the group shares a Christmas meal and offers games for the kids. It’s an opportunity for Knights and their families to participate in a joint activity while also giving to those in need.”
Gigi Berol, First United Methodist Church, Ogallala
“Every year, our church hosts the Methodist Church Christmas Angel Store to help families with Christmas gifts and to encourage family time. The items, which we wrap for them, are donated or purchased with donated funds. I’ve chaired this mission for 15 years, and it’s close to my heart. We’ve grown over the years, and with the generous support of our community, we are able to help many, many families celebrate the birth of Christ without worrying that they have no presents for their children.”
Patrick Brennan, president, Omaha Woodworkers Guild
“Our members, as part of our goal of community service, have been building wooden toys at Christmastime for about 20 years. They’re intended for younger boys and girls and have included cars, trucks, planes, cameras, doll cradles and puzzles and, one year, a sled. Members bring their toys to our December meeting at Woodcraft of Omaha. One of us then delivers the toys to Siena-Francis House, where we’ve been taking them for about 10 years. Before that, the toys were given to Santa Claus at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center for distribution to patients. We know that this is one small deed and not every child will receive a gift. But those who do will have a toy that will last for years.”
Phillip LaRoe, First Presbyterian Church, St. Paul
“Many people in town, including widows, widowers and others, are alone on Thanksgiving or cannot afford to celebrate with a large meal. So in 2003, we began our annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. Diners often meet with friends they have not seen since the last dinner. The meal is free; indeed, though we enjoy support from the entire community with volunteers and donations, the church refuses to accept donations on Thanksgiving Day. The dinner has become a huge success in St. Paul, growing from 250 meals in 2003 to more than 450 in 2016 in a town with a population of about 2,000. In addition to serving meals in our fellowship hall, we deliver meals to those who are homebound, those receiving Meals on Wheels and those who are working the holiday and miss out on the family meal.”
Carolyn Smith, First United Methodist Church, Cozad
“We’re continuing our ‘Clothem’ project for the community for the 14th year. Each year, a gift of new jeans, a shirt, a package of socks and a package of undies is given to 250 to 300 needy children in Cozad. Cash donations by faithful people allow us to purchase jeans and shirts. I coordinate a special project called ‘Undie Sundays’ at local churches in November. Members bring new packages of undies and socks for the children. The feeling we have in our hearts when the family picks up their special bags is so rewarding. The smiles on the faces of the children are priceless. Distribution is the weekend prior to Christmas. Yes, God is so good!”