Six-year-old Scott Barret stared, fascinated, at the bee colony. He wandered around the Fellowship Hall at the First United Methodist Church in Alhambra, looking at the rabbits and chickens on display at the church's Alternative Christmas Market.
But he kept going back to the bee colony, drawn by the swarming mass of insects inside the glass case. Finally, he made his first purchase, two shares of a bee colony, which cost $4. Then, with the help of his grandmother, Beverly Oliver, he purchased two blankets, 10 chickens and two shares of a rabbit, spending a total of $22.
Scott and his grandmother were two of an estimated 8,800 San Gabriel Valley residents who did at least a portion of their Christmas shopping this year at one of a growing number of alternative Christmas markets sponsored by the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Pasadena.
Gifts for Friends
Those who shopped at the markets were looking for gifts for friends and relatives, who will find a card under the Christmas tree stating that a cow, a rabbit, bees or some other useful gift will be sent in his or her name to impoverished people in Third World countries.
"People come in and know exactly what they want to spend and spread it out as much as they can," said Jeannette Chapman, who was stationed at a table where heifers were sold. Although no one bought a whole heifer at the Alhambra church that day, shoppers bought enough shares at $15 each so at least one $750 heifer will be sent to a village in a Third World country for Christmas.
"I'm thinking in terms of food," said Chapman, who bought three rabbits that day. "To me that seemed like the quickest way to help the hungry. Rabbits multiply so fast and have a lot of good protein."
A total of 14 markets were held at San Gabriel Valley churches in late November and early December. Although no more markets are scheduled for this year, purchases may still be made by calling Heifer Project International at (213) 693-7757 or Church World Service at (818) 449-2714.
Distributed to 2 Groups
Funds raised through the markets are distributed to the two organizations, which purchase the items designated by the gift-givers. The two groups have missionaries and personnel stationed in various world areas advising them on where animals and other goods are most needed.
The first alternative Christmas market in the San Gabriel Valley was established in 1980 by Harriet Prichard, a Sierra Madre resident, at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church.
The gift-giving program has since spread to 45 churches scattered around Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, Prichard said. An additional 60 churches have joined forces in groups of three to six in cooperative efforts to hold markets for their parishioners.
Prichard, who worked at the time as director of the children's ministry at Pasadena Presbyterian, said she wanted to establish "a model for the real meaning of gift-giving and to make giving authentic."
"I knew there were many people in the world who have nothing, and we have everything. So I thought, why not send gifts overseas and buy things that they need," Prichard said.
She looked for help from Casey Howell, director of the Pasadena office of Church World Service, an Indiana-based offshoot of the National Council of Churches of Christ, and Larry Peel, director of the southwestern region of Heifer Project International, an Arkansas-based independent nonprofit organization that has offered self-help training programs and sent farm animals to underdeveloped countries since 1944.
'Caught On Beautifully'
"It's an idea that has caught on beautifully," Peel said. "A lot of people are really getting tired of the commercialization of Christmas. The alternative Christmas market gives people the opportunity to give a gift and know it will not be put up in an attic or not used."
This year, Alhambra's First United Methodist Church, which offered its market for the fourth year, sold 920 chickens, 12 bee colonies, 360 vaccine shots, 360 high-protein biscuits and 270 leucaena trees, raising a total of $4,000.
Last year, Southern California markets, aided by Heifer Project International and Church World Service, supplied poor families in underdeveloped countries with 1,500 blankets, 37,814 leucaena trees (which grow very rapidly with minimal water and provide a source of firewood), 651 pounds of fruit and vegetable seeds, 32,280 chickens, 20,000 bees, 545 rabbits, 79 pigs, 23 heifers and 67 goats.
"We sent a herd of goats to east Honduras," Prichard recalled. "It changed the malnutrition rate in children in one village from 96% to 14% in one year. This was from the rich milk from the goats."
Sells Milk for Profit
Prichard said goats also help provide an income to the impoverished in Ethiopia.
"In 2 1/2 years a farmer in Ethiopia can make five times as much as he makes now with the sale of the milk left over after he feeds his family," Prichard said.
Shoppers at the Alhambra church were greeted at the door of the balloon-decked Fellowship Hall by a man dressed in native Guatemalan garb. He offered customers a shopping list and a set of instructions as a sleepy-eyed goat by his side gazed at the bustling crowd inside the hall.
Christmas shoppers at the numerous markets buy gifts from a list compiled by Prichard with the aid of Church World Service and Heifer Project International.
Many of the other markets in the San Gabriel Valley had a similar, festive atmosphere as colorful streamers and balloons hung from the walls and tables, and lined auditoriums and church yards. Decorated Christmas trees, animals and tally boards indicating what and how much had been sold were common. Hungry shoppers also could buy a wide range of refreshments, including small sandwiches, baked goods, coffee and soft drinks.
In the Alhambra church, children ran from one table to the next, intrigued by the small menagerie that included bees, rabbits and chickens. Others scurried around the small Christmas trees centered in halls or courtyards decorated with paper animals. The shoppers shared several common sentiments. Many said they wanted to revive the true meaning of Christmas and escape the commercialism that has come to be associated with the holiday season.
"Better Fits Christmas"
"I think this is something that fits the Christmas spirit better," said Paul Nelson, a parishioner at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Pasadena who bought a blanket, 40 leucaena trees, a share of a pig, 10 chickens, 10 vaccine shots and a package of seeds.
"I look at the stark facts of hunger in the world and feel I could do some good and deal with them. This helps to deal with these problems instead of giving presents people don't want," Nelson said.
Although a lot of people have sought to renew the spirit and genuine meaning of Christmas by giving to others who are truly in need, some recipients do not appreciate receiving just a card for Christmas.
"My family appreciates it for the most part," said Bob Earhart, who has been shopping at the Alternative Christmas Market at the First Christian Church in Pasadena for the past three years. "But I think my brother-in-law is getting tired of getting a pig.
"When I called to ask him if he wanted a cow or another pig this year he said, 'I want a real gift,' " said Earhart, who is pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Pasadena.
Most of the San Gabriel Valley churches offer a crafts fair in conjunction with the market, selling handcrafts made by peasants from such countries as Bangladesh, Guatemala, India and Mexico. Among the items sold at these international boutiques are woven baskets, wooden sculptures and jewelry at prices ranging from $1 to $40.
Buys Little Vase
Proceeds from the craft fairs will be returned to the people who made the crafts under programs organized by the Mennonite Self-Help Project, the Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocations (SERRV) and Third World Hand Arts, all of which help artisans from underdeveloped countries get fair prices for their wares.
"I just bought a little vase from India," said parishioner Mary Arnold as she browsed through the crafts at the Alhambra church. "I want to help people who are down and out and poverty-stricken."
Because the markets have become so popular, some smaller churches, including the Church of the Brethren and the First Christian Church in Pasadena, have combined resources to hold markets that are big enough to draw a good crowd.
As a result of the stiff competition, some churches, such as Trinity Presbyterian in Pasadena, were not able to raise as much money this year as they have in the past.
"We're not doing as well as last year," said Merrit Thompson, the treasurer of the alternative Christmas market at the Trinity Presbyterian Church. "More and more churches are doing this and people who used to come here are no longer visiting us because they have a market at their own church."
But overall, the combined markets have taken in more money each year.
Bigger Goal Next Year
According to Prichard, who works as a music teacher in five schools in Watts, the Southern California markets are expected to raise nearly $700,000 this year, twice the amount raised in 1984. Organizers hope to bring in $1 million next year.
One of the reasons people say they continue shopping at the markets is that Heifer Project International, which handles the distribution of all livestock, promotes a perpetual chain of giving by stipulating that the firstborn of each animal given to a family by the organization, must be given to another family in the village. It is hoped that eventually every family in the community will own its own livestock.
Families who receive livestock must also participate in an animal care training program.
"We're a self-help developmental agency whose specialty is to provide food-producing animals to needy people and provide training programs in the management and care of the animals given," Peel said. "We're not trying to add more animals to a hungry population, but trying to send productive animals for a longer-lasting solution to the problem."
ALTERNATIVE SHOPPING LIST CHURCH WORLD SERVICE Leucaena Tree seedlings 10 each, 10 for $1 Vaccine Shots 50 each, 10 for $5 Hi-calorie, Hi-energy biscuits 75 for 10, 20 for $1.50 Vegetabele Fruit Seeds $6/lb., packet for $1.50 Blankets $5 each Village Water Pump $8 share, $280 each Treadle Sewing Machine $10 share, $300 each HEIFER PROJECT INTERNATIONAL Chickens 50 each, 40 for $20 Rabbits $1 share, $15 each Bees $2 share, $20 per colony Pigs $5 share, $100 each Goats $5 share, $100 each Sheep $5 share, $100 each Heifers $15 share, $750 each