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Alternative market keeps Christ in Christmas

Alternative market keeps Christ in Christmas

Proceeds from sales at the Alternative Christmas Market at John Wesley UMC go to benefit nonprofit organizations. The mission hit a milestone of $1 million raised this year, its 29th Christmas season. Photos from Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr.

TALLAHASSEE -- It’s a place where you can buy crickets and bus passes, trees and vegetable seeds, energy-efficient lightbulbs and other stuff to give to someone in need and to honor someone who has enough.

Of course, shoppers at John Wesley UMC’s annual Alternative Christmas Market don’t actually take home these items. The bus passes are used to help people looking for work. The lightbulbs are intended to help reduce the carbon footprint. The crickets are fed to baby birds that have fallen from nests.

Shoppers at the market fill out a sheet indicating whom the gift will honor and listing codes for the items they are purchasing and the charity that benefits from the sale.   

After buyers have selected their gifts, a calligrapher writes out a card, letting the recipient know a gift has been given in his or her honor.

Cindy Cosper, market director, describes the event as three-way giving: The giver gives a gift, the recipient is honored and the charity is able to extend the reach of its good works.

The market was originally spearheaded by John Davis, who led it for more than two decades.

“It’s now a tradition,” Cosper said. “Twenty-nine years -- we’re now at $1,027,000 through the life of our market.”

The market hit the million-dollar mark this year, during the first day of the two-day event. The market is always held during the first weekend of December at John Wesley.

It all began as a way of putting Christ back into Christmas, Cosper explained.

“We had a group that was very broad-minded, really wanted to get away from the commercialism of Christmas, getting all those presents you don’t need,” she said.

Photo of wildlife specialist holding a peregrine falcon in front of display booth
Wildlife organizations like this one that advocates for birds of prey are among nonprofit groups that set up displays and reap the benefits of Christian generosity at the Alternative Christmas Market at John Wesley UMC, Tallahassee.

The idea was to get back into celebrating Jesus’ birthday, she added.

“Would you really give Jesus a tie or a toaster? What would he do with them? …What kind of gifts would Jesus give?”

The market started small.

“I think our first market only brought in about $2,000,” Cosper said. 

At its peak, it pulled in $60,000. Typically it raises about $40,000, she said. This year, $35,200 came in at the market, but that’s not counting any that may have come in through the website after the event. 

The Alternative Christmas Market features more than 30 charities representing an array of causes. There are organizations that support the young, the old and families. There are groups that provide help for animals, support medical missions and work to improve the environment. 

The list goes on.

At each market, charitable organizations come in and set up a booth in the church fellowship hall. The organizations decorate and staff the booths. They also help spread the word about the market, Cosper said.

It’s a festive occasion.

“You really feel the joy when you walk into our market. We have music going. Everything is decorated. It’s real homey. It has a real Christmas-y feel,” Cosper said.

Shoppers make their way around the hall, learning about various causes and choosing which they want to support through their gift-giving.

It’s possible to get a gift for everyone on your list without ever stepping into a mall, Cosper said.

Organizations are allowed to participate in the market by invitation only, and those charities are vetted to be sure they are legitimate and have a tax-exempt status, Cosper said. The market allows no more than three charities in any particular category.

The market has continued to expand and to offer more diverse opportunities to share.

“We grew over the years to the limit of our fellowship hall, which is about 32 booths,” Cosper said. There is a waiting list, and when an opening arises, a committee decides which group to add.

In addition to the charity booths, there’s a tangible market, where people can buy fair trade coffee, chocolate and jellies, along with crafts and other items. Some people skip the charity booths and head straight to the crafts market, Cosper said. The church selects some items on consignment and uses the profit it makes from those goods to pay for fliers and other expenses associated with the market.

“We have these little country goodies that people can buy,” Cosper added, such as fresh bread or pickled okra. Proceeds from those sales go to the groups providing them to support their Christmas projects.

Shoppers bring canned goods for the local food distribution agency in lieu of an admission fee. This year, Cosper delivered six boxes of food as a result of the market. 

Running the market requires about 40 volunteers, including people to help set it up, greeters, cashiers, calligraphers, data management helpers and others.

Despite the work, Cosper said she’d recommend the event to other churches. Start small and build from there, she advised.

To view the market website, click here.