There are 27 days left until the end of December. Many people are counting the days left until Christmas (20 days). I am too, although I am not a Christian. But, I am also counting down the days until my annual end-of-the-year almsgiving. This year, it is scheduled to take place on December 20. So, I have 15 days left to prepare for it.
"Alms" are defined as donations (money, food, other goods, etc.) given to the poor or needy. Buddhist monks make a pledge of poverty when they become monks. Buddhist laity gain merit by making donations or giving alms to the poor, including Buddhist monks.
The reasons behind the giving are many, but basically, they include the wish to accrue merit by performing beneficial deeds (or 'karma' in Sanskrit), or to transfer those merits to departed loved ones, and to cultivate non-attachment (to the things being given away).
I grew up in a family that participated in many almsgivings throughout the year; usually, they took place to commemorate sacred days and departed loved ones. This particular end-of-the-year almsgiving tradition was begun in 1987, by my mother and has been carried on by me. The original reason for holding it evolved over the years and became a sort of an annual thanksgiving for the year that was, before we proceed to the new year. There is no set date for it; it is usually held on a day that is convenient for both me and the monks who attend it, but, I make it a point to hold the almsgiving before Christmas.
There are many traditions associated with almsgivings that have developed in Buddhist cultures over the centuries. Some of those traditions are common to all; others are specific to each culture, time, and place. Some of those traditions have remained unchanged; others are evolving.
For me, the almsgiving traditions include serving a vegetarian lunch to the monks (and family and friends I have invited to participate). Buddhist monks are restrained from eating after noon, so, lunch is their last meal for the day until the following day's breakfast. Lunch consists of rice and vegetable curries, followed by a variety of fruits and desserts. Our cultural traditions include curd (yogurt) and palm treacle as one of the "must have" desserts, as well as several different types of sweets. The exact number of items doesn't matter; what matters is offering a choice.
The number of monks I invite vary from year to year, but, at minimum, there needs to be 5 monks present, in order to make the almsgiving an offering to the entire Order of the Buddhist monks as opposed to only the individual monks who are actually participating (they are representative of the community of monks). There are some monks who have attended my mother's almsgivings and mine, year after year; they've watched my daughter grow up and participate in the almsgiving and have expressed hopes of seeing her carry on the tradition. Other monks participate from time to time.
I have already invited the monks and we have agreed upon a date. I have already invited several family members and friends to participate in the event. There are still a few more to invite. I have decided on what I will be offering as donations; I just have to prepare them. I have previous years' menus on which to base this year's menu. But I need to make out my grocery list, shop the ethnic stores for some of the items, make some of the sweets that can be made ahead of time, and then, there's all the cleaning and the cooking. I have a 5-7 page typed to do list/schedule to help me with that!
My to do list/schedule is a source of amusement for several of my friends and family, but it has meant that the actual ceremony flows smoothly, without any last minute rushing around in search of needed items. The monks really appreciate this and they never fail to comment on it, observing that everything is so nicely organized. I'll post my to do list and schedule another day; this post is long enough as it is.