Pandas are great, but aren’t there better ways to spend $4.5 million? (Susan Walsh/AP)

It’s the time of year when charitable donations spike and also when families try to teach children about the importance of helping others and contributing to the greater good.

Many of us have found inspiration in the profusion of “layaway angels.” After one anonymous donor walked into a Michigan Kmart and paid off a layaway accounts, copy-cats have sprung up all over the country.

Kmart told USA Today in a story published today that at least 1,000 donors have visited stores across the country this year and contributed, so far, more than $400,000.

Not all of these donors are wealthy. “As my daughter and I walked out of the store we both had tears in our eyes and we were hugging each other. It feels good. It still feels good.” Ellen Crawford, who gave a total of $200 toward strangers’ accounts, told the Las Vegas Sun.

Meanwhile, here in D.C., where Congress is considering halting long-term unemployment benefits at the same time that legislators have repeatedly failed to stimulate significant job growth, a different kind of surprise charity was unveiled last week.

David M. Rubenstein donated $4.5 million to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to fund the giant panda research and reproduction program for the next five years.

Let me repeat that: $4.5 million for the panda reproduction program at a time of almost 9 percent unemployment, according to Tuesday’s US Labor Department report. [pdf].

Rubenstein, the co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity firms, is a generous benefactor to many organizations. He and other 1 percenters sponsor many noble causes.

Rubenstein, in fact, was profiled in The Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this year for his many contributions to august institutions of learning and to the arts and humanities. He seems like a good guy. He talked about his interest in literacy programs and has even pledged to give away half of his fortune, which is estimated to be, according to the profile, $2.5 billion.

Still, the “holiday gift” to a panda program has a “let them eat cake” feel to it. It’s hard to imagine a less worthy cause right now.

I say this as one who adores the pandas. And the Zoo. Really, I do.

But I do not adore imagining how $4.5 million dollars might have been used for a real cause to help struggling families this season; how many layaway accounts paid off; how many jobs created.

Just as it’s hard to imagine that Congress may let benefits to the long-time unemployed expire at the end of year. But that’s another story and this one is about something utterly different — charity.

One more thing I do not adore: Traveling home, several hours outside of Washington, for Christmas and being called upon, once again, to explain “inside-the-beltway” thinking.

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View Photo Gallery: Philanthropist David M. Rubenstein is donating $4.5 million to National Zoo’s giant panda reproduction program, which will pay the tab for five years of reproduction efforts and other costs.