If you're a friend of a member of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Mission Viejo, don't be surprised if you find a water buffalo--at least the spirit of one--under your Christmas tree this season.
The church, along with 81 other Christian churches in California, is site of an Alternative Christmas Market, where supplies and services for the needy at home and abroad can be purchased on behalf of family members or friends. Funds collected at the markets are later distributed to international relief organizations, said Harriet Prichard of Pasadena, Alternative Christmas Markets founder and director. A purchase is acknowledged by a Christmas card illustrated with a Nativity scene.
The markets, billed as "your shopping list for the world," sell vaccinations, farm animals and tools for Third World countries and impoverished parts of the United States. Six markets will be held at Orange County churches Sunday, with five to follow next weekend.
Mount Olive has been holding an Alternative Christmas Market for the past four years in an effort to "break away from the commercialism that is so rampant" during the holiday season, said event coordinator Joel Palmer, a statistician for Smith Tool Co. in Irvine.
"It's a way to help the needy in our country and abroad by offering alternative gifts," he said. "Instead of giving friends and relatives gifts that they may have to exchange the day after Christmas, you can give farm animals and implements that these people can't purchase for themselves either because of drought or economic forces."
The Mount Olive market, which formally began Sunday, has already raised about $2,000, Palmer said. The market will continue on an informal basis through Dec. 14 at the church.
Overall, the Alternative Christmas Markets, held in Central and Southern California, are expected to raise $600,000 this season at churches from San Diego to San Jose, Prichard said.
Among the livestock for sale are heifers, sheep, goats, rabbits, chicken, honey bees, pigs and water buffalo. Prices range from $180 for a water buffalo to $1 for a chicken. "Shares" in animals also are available. For instance, a share in a pig, sheep or goat will be sold for $5, Palmer said.
Also available are such implements as sewing machines and water pumps. Foodstuffs, such as high-protein biscuits, and vaccinations for six communicable childhood diseases may also be purchased.
Among the buyers at the Mission Viejo market last weekend were Jessica Tofflin, 9, and her sister Charlene, 5. Their parents, Renee and Edward Tofflin of Mission Viejo, helped them buy "a whole mess of stuff" for $23, Renee Tofflin said .
"They bought a tree, a chicken, seeds, honey bees and part of a heifer and a share of sheep," Renee Tofflin said. "Half is going to one grandfather and half is going to another grandfather."
Tofflin said she hopes that the purchases will drive home an important lesson on the Christmas message to the children.
"We really wanted to stress to them that Christmas is not going out and buying a whole bunch of presents," she said. "It's sharing with people who are really in need."
Not all the purchases leave their recipients with nothing more than a warm feeling, however. Arts and crafts made by artisan cooperatives in underdeveloped countries are also available, and the proceeds help to sustain the communities that produce them, said Jeanne Favreau-Sorvillo, manager of Third World Handarts.
The nonprofit gift shop, based in Orange, participates in the markets with three other craft cooperatives--the Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Self-Help Project; SERRV, a mission project of the Brethren Church; and African Team Ministries, a mission project of Episcopal and Presbyterian churches in East Africa.
Supplies and services are distributed here and abroad by the Heifer Project Inc., an interfaith organization based in Little Rock, Ark., that seeks to eliminate world hunger; the Pasadena-based regional office of the Church World Service, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches; Habitat for Humanity, an Americus, Ga., nonprofit organization concerned with building houses for the poor; and World Vision, a Pasadena-based international relief organization.
Contributions were also collected Sunday for the Lutheran Social Services in Orange County, the relief arm of the Lutheran Church, Palmer said.
Idea Conceived in 1980
Prichard, a retired schoolteacher, was serving as interim director of children's missionaries at Pasadena Presbyterian Church when she came up with the idea for Alternative Christmas Markets in 1980.
"We wanted to model for the children the meaning of gift-giving at Christmas," she said. "Instead of just talking, we wanted the children to participate and really understand."
Since that time, Alternative Christmas Markets has grown "tremendously," she said.
"The first year, we only raised $8,000. Last year in the 45 markets we held in Southern California, we raised $300,000. Every year, the markets essentially double."
She cited some of the project's successes: "The Heifer Project, for example, sent a herd of goats to East Honduras in 1984. The malnutrition rate was 96% before the goats arrived. In one year, it was reduced to 14%."
Self-Help a Goal
She noted, however, that some benefits cannot be measured because one of the project's aims is to help the needy to help themselves. For instance, she said, livestock is not simply eaten but allowed to reproduce, thereby helping nearby villages.
Patrick Ward, a San Clemente High School sophomore, believes that a gift from an Alternative Christmas Market is "special." His mother, Barbara, bought some chickens this year, and his father, Pat, has been involved with organizing the market since it was first staged at Mount Olive in 1982.
"It shows," Patrick said, " that you're concerned and that you care enough to do something good."