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Despite a pandemic, it’s still the ‘season of giving.’ These Philadelphians say safely spreading cheer is more important than ever.

“There’s a deeper appreciation for how much we need each other and how much we depend on each other.”

Luke DiCristino checks out a community Christmas tree in Springfield's Williams Park, where people can leave motivational messages, remember loved ones who've died, and connect safely.
Luke DiCristino checks out a community Christmas tree in Springfield's Williams Park, where people can leave motivational messages, remember loved ones who've died, and connect safely.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Meghan Hanly had never organized any kind of Christmas cheer-spreading event, and she wasn’t planning to do so this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Then, a stranger brightened Hanly’s year, and compelled her to do the same for others.

It began when Hanly, 26, of Springfield, Delaware County, took to Facebook earlier this winter to ask if she could buy an impossible-to-find Playstation 5 off of someone. She wanted to give it to her twin brother, who has autism and cerebral palsy, for Christmas, but the consoles have become a hot commodity. An anonymous stranger reached out, saying he wanted to give one to her brother — for free, Hanly said.

The man didn’t want credit or publicity, Hanly said, but he did have one request: Pay the kindness forward.

So Hanly bought a Christmas tree at a local parking-lot sale.

Inspired by community trees put up in Ocean City, N.J., Hanly put hers up at Williams Park in Springfield as a community tree, spread the word on social media, and residents flocked to it. Within hours, they adorned the branches with handmade ornaments, remembrances of loved ones who had died, and motivational messages, such as “We’re all going to get through this together.”

“It was just beautiful,” Hanly said. “You drive by the tree and you can’t help but smile.”

The overwhelming response, she added, shows “we all need each other.”

The simple sentiment has been showcased across the Philadelphia region, in ways big and small, this holiday season, a time often referred to as the season of giving. Despite the challenges of a year upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout of public health measures, and intense political polarization — or perhaps because of them — many people are searching for ways to safely spread joy. If they aren’t in position to give financially, they say they’re giving their time or talents, donating unused items they already own, or making essential workers smile behind their masks with a kind word or action.

For some, participation in the season of giving is just an unconventional extension of an annual tradition. Their regular in-person charity events have turned virtual, and clothing and toy drives now incorporate social distancing, masking, and other safety precautions.

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But for others, their commitment to spreading holiday cheer is new. During this time of isolation and shared anxiety, of physical and mental health struggles, and abundant uncertainty, people say they feel a need to connect with others and help those who are less fortunate. In doing so, they say, they get a morale boost, too, and feel a deeper appreciation for what they have, even during a year when so much has been lost.

When asking for examples of people helping others this holiday season, The Inquirer was bombarded with heartwarming requests and uplifting stories. Some even reached out to say they’ve been spreading kindness anonymously, keeping their eyes peeled for social media posts in which people say they’re struggling and then sending them items or money. One South Jersey woman said she carries around Christmas cards to give to strangers in stores “to make their day a little brighter.”

Cristina Tessaro, 38, of South Philly, said requests to join her neighborhood “Buy Nothing” group, which is part of an international movement of gift economies, have increased every month during the pandemic. In recent weeks, neighbors have met requests to deliver daily advent surprises to the son of a neighbor who was caring for a loved one out of town. Others have offered to give neighbors Christmas stockings, decorations, winter clothes, and snow gear.

In Media, Aimee Rubin and Kelly Yiadom don’t know most of the families they’re helping this holiday season through their nonprofit, the Circle of Giving, which was formed in the spring when the pandemic hit.

For months, the group has been raising money to send grocery store gift cards and meals from local restaurants to families on the Rose Tree-Media School District’s free and reduced lunch list, Rubin said. To protect the families’ privacy, district officials do the deliveries, she said.

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Recently, the Circle of Giving organized a holiday drive where district families in need could sign up to be “adopted” by others who would donate gifts on their children’s holiday wish lists. More than 100 families signed up to be helped, Rubin said, but far more volunteered to donate. They had to turn many volunteers away.

While “we used to only think about giving during the holidays, the pandemic has shown us we have to do so much” throughout the year, Rubin, 47, said.

Rose Tree-Media Superintendent Eleanor DiMarino-Linnen said she’s been heartened to see this outpouring of support in her district, as well as resilience during difficult times.

This holiday season, “there’s a deeper appreciation for how much we need each other and how much we depend on each other,” she said. “The year has been so hard. There’s so much you can’t do to help people. … Anytime that something is joyful, it kind of bolsters you.”

In Upper Darby, UDTJ, a grassroots activism group created in June after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, has been inspired by the response to its first holiday assistance drive, said board member Kyle McIntrye, 22, of Drexel Hill. They’ve been collecting holiday gifts, nonperishable food, and winter apparel to be delivered to families in need in Upper Darby and West Philadelphia in the days before Christmas, he said.

“With the pandemic and the economic downturn, we really want to make sure communities of color are provided the resources they need and would usually be getting from government programs” that are now stretched thin or inadequate, he said, noting that many people did not expect to need help this year.

“Helping people out this holiday season is gonna mean 10 times more than it did previously given everything,” he added. “That being said, don’t forget about them in the new year.”