Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens

What do we really want when we offer gifts to our kids? I’m guessing excitement, happiness, hopefully some lasting joy. It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget, only to see it ignored a week or two later. The antidote? Fewer presents of better quality, as well as an emphasis on experiences. According to science, these are the gifts that result in real pleasure.

Real Tools for Real Work

Young kids beg to help out. Saying yes to those offers is more important than we might imagine and helps us raise kids who are more likely to take on household responsibilities as they get older. Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware and home goods store. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime. Starting at four years old we got our kids woodworking tools, plus gave them access to scrap wood. We also kept a stool handy for little kids to help at the counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes—-cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement. When our oldest was three,and loved to turn machines on and off, we got him a hand vac as a gift. He used it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission.

Woodworking tools: Rubber mallet, vintage manual hand drill , work gloves, level, safety glasses, tool belt, battery-powered drill, cordless screwdriver, tool box, plus books such as Builder Boards: How to Build the Take-Apart Playhouse14 Woodworking Projects For Parents and Kids To Build Togetherand The Kids’ Building Workshop. For teens, more complex project books as well as power tools, adult-sized hand tools, a sturdy workbench, and the freedom to work on their own.

Kitchen-y enticements. Apron, egg slicer, small rolling pin, small pitcher, rotary egg beater, small mixing bowls,
Doodle by Stitch apron, safe Curious Chef knives, a step stool or adjustable kitchen helper stoolEngaging cookbooks like The Do It Myself Kids’ CookbookTwist It Up, and Kids’ First Cookbook. For teens, a high quality kitchen utensil of their own (a good chef’s knife is a classic gift) along with cookbooks they’ll be eager to test out such as Cooking for GeeksThe Everything College Cookbook, or a cookbook aimed at particular tastes.

Gardening tools: Seeds, small gloves, trowel, bucket, small rake and shovel, (there are lots of child-sized tools at For Small Hands), containers to start indoor plants from sprouting vegetables like sweet potatoes, a kit to grow sprouts for salads and stir fries, books such as Gardening Lab for Kids and Gardening Projects for Kids. Teens with horticultural interests will appreciate adult-sized tools, gift certificates for seed companies, and specialty books.

Outdoor adventure tools: magnifying glass, collapsible cup
or collapsible water bottle , water bottle sling, spork, sleeping bag, flashlight, hand-warmers, vest with lots of pockets for gear
, binoculars, raincoat or rain parka, headlamp, compass, lantern, multi-tool.  (Thanks to Gillian for these suggestions.)

Interest-Based Classes 

Favorite lessons for one of my kids were surprisingly affordable one-on-one bagpiping lessons with a gentleman who’d once been Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch.One-time or ongoing classes geared for enjoyment as well as competence can expand on an interest. For teens, one-on-one mentoring in an area of passionate interest is even better.  Here are some ways you can connect teens to experts in all sorts of fields. Class ideas?

coding

whittling

horseback riding

yoga

fencing

skiing

dance

pottery

rock climbing

archery

gymnastics

parkour

glass blowing

Membership or Season Passes

My oldest son was the youngest member of a model railroad club and almost never missed their regular meetings. Consider a membership to an organization that fits your child’s quirky passions. You might join local historical society, rock collector’s group, chess club, amateur archaeology organization, herpetology society, magician’s guild, whatever builds on a young person’s fascination. Be sure to read newsletters, attend classes, and otherwise enjoy member benefits. Other possibilities include:

hacker space

Maker programs

museum

aviary

botanical garden

wildlife area

Maker programs

amusement park

recreation center

aquarium

One Time Passes

Make this a parent-child activity for young children, for older kids buy two or more passes so they can go with friends.

ski slopes

challenge courses

paintball range

climbing gym

skating rink

golf course

bowling alley

Event Tickets

These are special occasions, ones that’ll stay in their memories. Don’t forget to take pictures when you arrive.

live theater

concert

sporting event

con

Maker Faire 

Out-of-the-Ordinary Things to do Together 

These ideas are great coming from a parent, they may be even more thrilling coming from relatives who want to spend more one-on-one time with younger members of the family. Simply give materials, instructions, or brochures for something you’ll be doing together.  When you give the gift, make sure to set a date!

Print out a recipe you’ve never tried, include ingredients, set a date to make it together.

Go on a train ride.

Make a fairy garden together. Gift a few supplies for the project, like a tiny watering can fairies might use.

Give a bunch of boxes along with the inspiration of Welcome to Your Awesome Robot or find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Give fabric markers and white or light-colored plain pillowcases (well-worn ones from thrift stores are perfect for this) to decorate your dreams with drawings, quotes, or wishes.

Take a road trip, maybe aiming to see oddball attractions in your state.

Give some beanbags and learn to juggle together.

Go on a hike. Give hike-related gear and maybe a book like My Nature Book or any of Jane Kirland’s books in the Take a Walk series

Go on a more challenging hike with teens, maybe take along a book like Wreck This Journal Everywhere.

Enjoy plein air art experiences together. You might want to give the youngest child a special tote bag to bring art supplies to the park, zoo, or local wildlife spot to draw or paint. For older youth, consider gifting a small sketchbook along with a  compact set of watercolorsoil pastels,  sketch pencilsor charcoal.

Try stand up paddle boarding together.

Take kayaking lessons together.

Give a roll of quarters to play at a place that still has arcade games.

Try geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt is made possible with a GPS.  Learn more at geocaching.com or navicache.com

Participate in a mud run scheduled in your area.

Construct an insect hotel together, you might pair it with a book like Insectigations. Teens may enjoy creating larger-scale insect habitat.

Build a clay oven together. Test it out by baking homemade pizza.

Give a bird feeder or binoculars, and sign up together to log your bird sightings at eBird or participate together in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Give rubber stamps and a logbook to go letterboxing together.  Learn more at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com

Go cloud watching. Consult The Cloud Collector’s Handbook as you “collect” different cloud types. Post photos to the online gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Make treats for  birds and animals including pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, popcorn strings, and cranberry garlands. Then go outside to hang them on a tree together.

Mark cardboard squares with Scrabble letters for a giant game to be played outside.

Set aside open-ended project time together. Get inspiration from books such as RoboticsTinkerlab, and Unbored.

Subscriptions

Magazines are often the only things kids receive in the mail. (Although you can change this with strange and interesting ways to send snail mail.)

There are wonderful magazine for kids. For babies there’s  Babybug, toddler to preschool ages consider Ladybug, National Geographic Little Kids, Click, and Ranger Rick Jr..

For elementary-age kids, New Moon Girls, MuseFaces, and OWL.

Boomerang subscriptions are one of the best things ever and a favorite with my kids. We saved every one we got. It’s like a radio show wrapped up in an audio magazine, covered with a delicious layer of smart. Perfect to save for a long trip, great to pass along to younger siblings.

For teens, find a publication that meets their interests, whether hip hop or high fashion. Look for indie magazines if you can’t find something that’s just right.

 Quality Musical Instruments 

Real instruments, scaled for a child’s size, sound great and inspire interest. Even very young children can pluck along to sheet music tucked under the strings of a lap harp. For impromptu playing at my house we leave out a number of instruments including a wooden flute,  set of panpipes, ukulele, small pentatonic scale harp, and a small accordion. And one of the best gifts we gave one of our sons was a much-desired, even if used, electric guitar when he turned 13. You might want to start with something affordable, such as a harmonica or ocarina. (Thanks to Silvia for suggesting instruments as gifts.)  Here are some sources for child-sized instruments.

HearthSong lap harp and extra sheet music

Schylling accordian or Woodstock accordion

For Small Hands percussion instruments such as shakers and drums

Harps of Lorien child-sized or larger lyre

ocarinas and harmonicas

Woodstock chimes and children’s hand bells

Hohner guitars, variable sizes

Bella Luna pentatonic flute

Zither Heaven bowed psaltery or a Roosebeck psaltery

Parent-Made Gifts

There’s something special about gifts you make. A snuggly fleece blanket, a second-hand riding toy with a custom paint job, a refinished child-sized rocking chair. You can find plenty of ideas online, but don’t forget these old standbys.

Homemade coupons they can “spend.”

  • Get-out-of-one chore.
  • Kid’s choice movie night.
  • Stay up an hour past bedtime.
  • Solo time with mom or dad all Saturday, kid’s choice of activities.
  • Sleep-over party.
  • After dark walk.
  • Scary storytelling around a fire.
  • A “yes” to any one project on Instructibles.com.

A dress-up trunk with lengths of fabric for capes, interesting hats, strange shirts and skirts, badges, belts, purses, jewelry, masks, and more.

Memorabilia to celebrate a teen’s birth. This is easier than ever with eBay. Find an issue of a magazine from the month of his or her birth. You might add music popular in that year, a political button, a piece of vintage clothing, etc.

A collection of family-favorite recipes. This is particularly useful for older teens. Just scan them and print out, or use one of the many services that prints hardbound books with your content.

A legacy present. If you’re lucky enough to have things from earlier generations, pass them on. Give grandpa’s fountain pen to your daughter, explaining that he loved to write as much as she does. Give a great uncle’s watch to a teen who shares his wanderlust. Give the funky afghan your aunt made to the kid who is as offbeat as she was. Tell them some stories about these relatives when you give such gifts!

Fighting Crazed Holiday Syndrome

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Who isn’t busy all the time? But around the holidays we’re crazy busy. I venture to say women are especially busy and those lights in our lives we call children make the pace even more frantic.

Sure we make all sorts of efforts to simplify and de-stress but for most of us the joys of holiday shopping, gifting, cooking, decorating, visiting, hosting and merrymaking have to fit right into our regular (overburdened) schedules.

It’s not like we can make more time where there is none. Well, maybe we can. Or at least use our time differently. I confess to the Crazed Holiday Syndrome but I fight back with these tactics.

Renounce the How-Does-She-Do-It-All Disease. You know the symptoms. You show excessive responsible because you’re sure no one else will do it (or do it right). You uphold traditions your family counts on. You pay close attention to get just the right gifts. You worry about money more than usual. You try to keep the focus on intangibles like faith and togetherness. When the frenzy is over you end up with an empty feeling. I’m the first to stand and admit that I’m still in recovery from this disease.

The cure? Talk to your loved ones about what means the most to them, slice away the rest. If that doesn’t work, slice anyway.

Shun Those Voices. They’re everywhere around the holidays. They seem so genuine and alluring but their sole aim is to make you feel insufficient. They speak to you from Pinterest, TV, magazines, websites, blogs, store displays— let’s admit they’re ubiquitous. These voices tell you that you’re not enough. To compensate you must do more. Dress beautifully, make elaborate meals, buy lavish gifts (and wrap them a whole lot better too).

This is the only diet you need to go on. Don’t watch a single cooking show, don’t open one slick women’s magazine, it’s best if you avoid stores as much as possible. You’ll have a lot more time plus you won’t have to reassemble what’s left of your self esteem.

Screw Tradition. No, I don’t mean avoiding your house of worship or shunning Grandma’s house. I do mean it’s possible to celebrate the season without so much of the heavy Gotta Do It weight hanging over you.

Some of our most memorable holidays have actually been those that veered wildly from tradition. My family will not forget a holiday dinner at Becky’s house featuring walls of wet paint, an oven on fire, and a dog getting sick everywhere. The zinger? She was eager to show foreign guests how we celebrate here in the U.S.

Try doing things a little differently, a little more slowly. If you’ve always gone to the movie theater to see the newest holiday releases after a day of shopping, skip both and go to a play at your community theater. If you’ve accepted every holiday invitation despite the costs of babysitters, travel, and lost sleep instead limit your selections to a few events that are reliably warm and wonderful. If you’ve always made a big meal, consider ordering take-out from a locally owned restaurant and serve it on your best plates. If you’ve always accommodated your kids’ requests for gifts because it’s Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa put new limits on materialism, letting them know you’ll consider one or two items they consider their highest priorities. If you’ve always driven around to see the holiday lights, go outside on a frosty night to sing together (even if only to a lone tree lit by moonlight). You’ll not only save time and money, you’ll also create new traditions.

Rethink Gift-Giving. Things have gotten out of hand. Children in this country once looked forward to a fresh orange, maybe a piece of candy and if they were lucky a toy or useful gift like a pocketknife or sewing kit. Historian Howard Chudacoff writes in Children at Play: An American History that most toys co-opt and control a child’s play. They’re better off with free time and objects they can use to fuel their imaginations (yes, a cardboard box). I even know a child being raised, quite happily, without a single purchased toy.

I admit things got out of hand in my own house. In a quest for meaning (let’s rephrase that to my quest for meaning) we’ve always had handmade holidays. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people….. Meals from scratch, homemade organic cookies, handmade gifts. Each of my four children made gifts for everyone every year, gifts that took substantial effort such as woodworking, felting, and ceramics. My teens still make some of the gifts they give although thankfully I’m not the one coming up with the ideas and supervising the process. The last few years economic realities have made hand made gifts ever more necessary, for other gifts I turn to non-profit and artisan sources. Try products offered by non-profits you support, works of art sold at local galleries, items directly available from artisans at Etsy, gifts of service or gifts of experience.

Last Resort. This tactic is heavy duty, the one I bring out when I start to feel sorry for myself. Because we’re not crazy busy in comparison to women throughout history. We think we’re stressed? Our foremothers hauled water; carded, spun and sewed clothes; chopped firewood and maintained the fire they cooked on; ground grain and made bread each day; planted and weeded gardens, then canned or dried the harvest; stretched limited food reserves with careful planning to last until the next harvest; cared for babies, children and the elderly with no professional help; treated the sick, stitched wounds and prepared the dead for burial; well, you get the idea.

Worse, many many women in the world still do this sort of grinding labor each day. Typically, women in developing countries work 17 hours a day.  Our sisters receive a tenth of the world’s income while performing two-thirds of the world’s work. These harsh realities put any concept of busy or stressed right out of my head. (For more information and ways to help, check out the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.)

So fight the Crazy Busy Syndrome with all you’ve got. Remember to count your blessings, including the joy of not eating my homemade buckwheat cookies!