Christmas joy can come from the most unlikely place - Valerie Baldowski

I started my Christmas shopping early this year by venturing out the Saturday after Thanksgiving to begin scoping out a few things.

I didn't dare venture out, especially to the mall, the day after Thanksgiving. I was afraid I might get run over by a pack of crazed shoppers looking for the best deal on blenders, sweaters, perfumes or electronics.

When I do shop, I do a lot of price comparisons these days, and when I'm really looking for a bargain, I now compare the price tags on merchandise on display in the brick-and-mortar stores to the prices online.

I was at my favorite major discount store the other day - the one with the yellow, smiley face promising really low prices - and the store had its usual crowd of holiday shoppers.

I went down the toy aisle and saw plenty of parents with kids in tow. But I was there that day to buy for two children whose names I had drawn for Operation Angel Tree, which I do every year through my church.

One of the program's sponsors is the Salvation Army, which is one of the reasons why I take part in Operation Angel Tree every holiday season. Each year, a large Christmas tree is set up in the narthex of our church, with ornaments bearing the names of boys or girls -- their first names, ages, and what they need and want.

I took two ornaments this year, one for a 10-year-old boy, and one for a 6-year-old girl. Some of the items you might not visualize as Christmas gifts, such as socks, shoes and underclothes, were on the wish lists.

Then, there were the usual things, like a Transformer toy for the boy, and a doll for the girl. As I searched the shelves looking for the items, bumping into people and dodging shopping carts, I wondered how many people were there to get something for themselves, as opposed to how many were picking up something for a child who probably wouldn't have anything under the tree on Christmas morning unless somebody did something about it.

I made my selections, buying everything I had planned, except for a doll. I decided to compare the online price for the doll, before making that last purchase.

My favorite part of Christmas is participating in Operation Angel Tree, and Operation Christmas Child. Operation Christmas Child, a ministry organized by Samaritan's Purse and Franklin Graham, is another of my personal holiday traditions.

This involves wrapping shoeboxes with holiday paper and filling them with small gifts to send to children worldwide. I always get two boxes, one for a boy and one for a girl. Once again this year, I got carried away and bought so many little gifts I was barely able to cram them into a tiny little shoebox.

This year, I've set another goal for myself. I've pledged to buy at least one unwrapped new toy, most likely two, to place in the drop box for Toys for Tots. There are plenty of drop boxes everywhere, and it's a simple, easy thing for me to do, but the difference it will make for a kid somewhere on Christmas morning is something I will take on faith.

Back to the online shopping idea I mentioned before. I did check online, and the girl's doll I saw at the store was about the same price as the online price. I still have a couple of weeks before the Operation Christmas Child gifts need to be turned in, so I will now go back to the store to purchase the doll.

No matter how the transaction is made, I buy these gifts joyfully, with the belief that I am helping make someone's Christmas merrier. God bless us, every one.

Valerie Baldowski covers government and politics for the Henry Daily Herald. She can be reached via e-mail at vbaldowski@henryherald.com.