RICHMOND -- When our kids were small, we had a regular early December routine that involved trying to get to the bottom of the bottomless toy chest and into the dark corners of the toy closet to see the things that no one had played with for a year. Or more.

We always ran into some things that no one could part with, but the idea was to gather up things that were still in good condition, donate them to some organization that would pass them on to needy kids and make room for whatever might appear under the Christmas tree.

Early on, the main motivation was their belief that space had to be made for new things or there would be no new things. It was the road to inspiration and separation.

A little later, they absorbed the idea that some kids out there -- people they mostly didn't know -- would be ecstatic over a used toy, if it wasn't an abused toy, that lots of kids didn't have Candyland and Etch-a-Sketch and a case full of Matchbox trucks. Actually, memory says the Matchbox trucks never rolled out of the house. So we cleared some spaces -- never enough -- and it felt good to know that we were sending things off to help what our smallest grandchild now refers to as "the less fortunate."

Thus it was heartwarming the other day to have Pittsfield's mayor, Dan Bianchi, suggest at the lighting of Pittsfield's Christmas tree that residents "engage in an act of charity" in this season of giving (and grabbing). It would be, he said, a Christmas present to yourself to give something to someone else, someone with a need.

The comment was a welcome addition to the tree-lighting tradition and certainly at this time of year, plenty of people reach out -- with donations to food pantries and money gifts to places like the Christian Center, Soldier On and the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Our dentist ran a raffle on services, with patients getting a ticket for every can of food they donated. At South Congregational Church, the extra request at the food pantry was for children's books because they want to fill minds as well as tummies.

The demands are heavy at this time of year. Still, despite the best efforts of commerce, Christmas cheer seems to triumph daily over cash register cha-chings, even as every charity in the nation hits the postal service with its fund-raising letters. Choices have to be made. But as the avalanche comes and, like the program that asks people to "shop small" (spend some money at locally owned stores), the best way to help people here is to circumvent the middle man and the highly paid executive, figure the big outfits are doing just fine and give to the locals. From animal protection places to those that give kids a place to play, the opportunities are legion.

The other message appropriate to this month of lights and songs and togetherness comes once again from Nelson Mandela, whose death at 95 has made millions of people refocus on the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela -- three men of color -- knew non-violence was the way to harmony, and this month's spotlight on Mandela's legacy could have lasting importance for the global community if his way became our way.

It's the season of the helping hand, the check written or the goods given. And every time a hungry person eats or a homeless person spends a night under cover in a warm bed or a wife moves out of a home that operates on fear, it's because of gifts given by neighbors to needy neighbors or strangers to needy strangers. The gifts made, it's quite all right to feel good about it.

Ruth Bass is a movelist and freelance writer. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.