Do Unto Others: 5 Ways to Spread Joy Around the Holidays

The best gift you can give this holiday season can’t be found at the shopping mall or in a mail order catalog. You won’t be able to order it online. This gift costs little, yet it will make you richer for having given it. It is the gift of yourself, your talents, your caring and your love. 

The multiple rewards of volunteering

Volunteering is a gift that benefits the giver as well as the receiver. In addition to the feeling of accomplishment and sense of purpose gained for having contributed to your community, you will widen your social circle, develop new skills and give your confidence a boost. A 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that volunteers reap health benefits from their philanthropic acts. People who volunteer have lower mortality rates and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.

But I don’t have time to volunteer

Looking at your jam-packed daily planner, you may believe taking out time to volunteer is just not possible. A 2012 study published in Psychological Science found that people who give away their time actually feel as if they’ve gained some free time. While everyone has the same 24-hours each day, people who volunteer feel less time-constrained. Study co-author Cassie Mogilner surmises, “… people who give time feel more capable, confident, and useful. They feel they’ve accomplished something and, therefore, that they can accomplish more in the future. And this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive.”

The holidays offer many opportunities to volunteer. These five are particularly suited to the season. Each community has different needs. For a comprehensive list of organizations in your town that needs volunteers, go to

Toys for Tots

This program of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve collects new toys for children in need at Christmas. The program operates in communities with a Marine Corps Reserve unit or a League detachment. Volunteers are needed to host Toys for Tots events and work at local warehouses. At the Toys for Tots website, a drop-down menu allows you to select your state and city to find the local Toys for Tot program in your area.

U.S. Postal Service Operation Santa

Each December, the United States Postal Service kicks off its Operation Santa program. Participating post offices make letters written to Santa available to volunteers. Postal employees screen the letters to determine the writers’ level of need. Identifying last names and addresses are diplomatically removed. When you “adopt” a letter, you become one of Santa’s elves, fulfilling the child’s request and bringing your package to the post office for delivery. Check with the USPS website during the first week of December to learn which post offices in your area are participating.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army’s red kettles are as much a part of the holiday season as silver bells and sprigs of holly. The Salvation Army helps approximately 30 million people each year with housing, rehabilitation, veteran and youth services, as well as Christmas assistance. The Red Kettle campaign is a major fundraiser, and the organization needs bell ringers to take shifts over the holiday season. Contact your local Salvation Army to find out how you may help.

Food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters

As the cold weather moves in, homeless shelters fill with the neediest citizens. Local food pantries and soup kitchens help feed those whose paychecks don’t stretch to the end of the month. Most are operated by church and private non-profit organizations. Contact your city or town hall, local social services agency or churches for a list of organizations that provide these survival basics, and call to offer your services.

Nursing homes

More than 1.3 million Americans now live in nursing homes. Even residents that are regularly visited by friends and family may find the holidays difficult as they live apart from the homes and communities where they’ve spent most of their lives. Contact the activities director at your local nursing home and ask how you can volunteer to bring some holiday cheer to their facility. This may involve helping with a holiday bazaar fundraiser or helping to deliver holiday baskets to residents. With the help of your local elementary school music teacher, you may be able to organize a group of carolers to bring songs of the season to a nursing home’s halls.

In his 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, George H. W. Bush called on individuals to let their light shine by providing national service as a volunteer. He named charitable organizations in the country, calling them “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” Imagine yourself as one of those points of light and pledge to spread your light and joy this holiday season.