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Surprise Christmas Gifts!

If ever there was a Christmas to give surprise gifts, it’s this one.  Unexpected gifts that bring smiles and laughs and memories. 

            Neither Husband’s nor my family pulled pranks often, but we remember a few surprises, like the year Uncle B played a trick on his father-in-law, my grandfather.  Papa was one of the most honest and fair and no-nonsense people I’ve ever known.  When Mom shopped for shirts for his three sons-in-laws’ Christmas presents and then told Papa the cost of each, he would give her money, even as little as a dollar, to put in the pocket if a shirt cost less than the others. 

            Every Christmas Papa gave one-pound boxes of Paul’s Stick Candy, soft stick candy of many different flavors, and as a kid I thought he owned the candy company because his name was Paul.  Papa tucked a $20 bill under the top flap of the white cardboard box – fifty years ago that amount bought a brown paper bag full of groceries.

            Uncle B told everyone except Papa his plan.  When Uncle B opened his and Aunt Nell’s box of candy, he swapped the $20 bill for a $100 bill.  He waved that bill above his head and said, “Thank you, Paul!”  Papa’s chin dropped, his eyes grew big and he reached into his back pocket, pulled out his billfold and looked inside it. How could he have made such a mistake!  Everyone, even us young grandchildren, laughed.

            Papa’s look of astonishment changed to confusion, when Uncle B drew a breath and held up Papa’s $20 bill.  Now, decades later, we grandchildren still laugh about the look on Papa’s face.

            Husband’s dad, aka Grandfather, was shocked by a gift he received one Christmas.  He had no hint of what was inside a beautifully wrapped package, but he was prepared for a surprise because no name was written on the gift tag to show who gave it.  Grandfather’s children, in-laws, and grandchildren sat gathered in his and Grandmother’s living room, and only the giver knew what was in the package.  Young grandchildren sat close on the floor by Grandfather’s feet, and he took his own sweet time to open the mystery package.

            Grandfather laughed aloud when only he saw the gift:  an xx-large white cotton bra embellished with sequins and red ribbons.  Holding both straps, Grandfather held his gift high for all to see.  Little ones covered their faces; grown ones laughed until tears rolled.  And for many years, we laughed again because that decorated bra was often among the gifts under the Ray family Christmas tree.

            Have you ever gotten a pig’s tail for Christmas?  When Husband was young, his maternal grandfather and uncles traditionally killed hogs the week of Christmas so a fresh pig’s tale was often wrapped and under the Christmas tree for the Powell family Christmas gathering.

            I don’t have a pig’s tail, but there are some things around our house that will be surprise gifts. As we celebrate this holy day, let’s bring laughter to Christmas 2020.

Shop at Home – Chapter 2

After reading my recent column about shopping at home, friends shared stories and agreed that I could share them here. 

 Five years ago, Jo found a newspaper from 1989 that had four-leaf clovers dried between its pages.  She remembered a day when her son Eli, then age 10, and his grandpa walked across the field between their homes.  Eli found 82 four-leaf clovers that day, and Jo had dried some of them in the newspaper that had been stored on a top closet shelf.  Jo cut an 8” x 10” section that showed the date from the paper.  She glued clovers around the paper’s edges and wrote a poem about that day when Eli and his grandpa were together.  Eli was 35 when he received the framed newspaper and poem, and he cried, as did all who watched him open his Christmas gift.  To make it an even more sentimental gift, Eli’s grandpa died in 1989.

            Delores shared that her mother writes a poem for her children’s birthdays and those saved poems are some of Delores’s most cherished gifts.  Recently, I found a picture of my granny holding my son when he was only six weeks old.  Jo’s and Delores’s gift ideasprompted me to write a short memory of Granny and mail it along with the picture to Son.  His immediate response and thank you give me the idea that a single picture with a short writing might be inside a few Christmas packages.

            Linda’s mother asked her brother and Linda to walk through her home and pick out the family pieces of antique furniture that they would like to have.  Last week, my friend Carol invited her only granddaughter to look through her jewelry and choose what she wanted.  I’m reminded of the day that my aunt took a ring off her finger and put it on mine. It was my grandma’s birthstone ring that had five stones:  one for each of my grandparents, my mother, and my two aunts.  Being the only surviving daughter, Aunt Doris wore the ring often.  That day she said, “It’s your turn to wear this ring.” 

            Friends also chimed in about regifting.  Nell said that her late step-mother thought she was the master re-gifter, but her gifts proved otherwise.  She gave a car vacuum with dirt inside the bag and a casserole dish with food stuck under the rim of the lid.  Her clothing gifts weren’t well received either:  a sweater with a speck of dried food on the front and a silk blouse with wrinkles where it had been tucked into a skirt waistline.

            One of the most legendary gifts that Nell’s step-mother gave was an evening clutch with theater stubs inside – not tickets, stubs.  This idea can be refined:  tickets or green folding money inside a new purse or wallet could be a really good gift.

            There are a at least two advantages of shopping at home:  you can wear pajamas and you’ll save money. Have fun shopping!  Only eight more days.

Why not shop at home?

            Is anyone Christmas shopping at home this year?  Not from home – at home?  My mom and Husband’s mom gave gifts that were theirs and that have become more valuable, sentimentally and, maybe, monetarily over the years.   

            I remember a Christmas in the late 1980s when I opened a lightweight package from under Mom and Dad’s tree and found a note inside.  I don’t remember exactly what Mom wrote, but my gift was a to choose a framed art print of a painting by Ralph McDonald from those that hung on Mom and Dad’s living room and dining room walls.  Mom had collected McDonald prints and now they were Christmas gifts for us children and spouses and grandchildren, who were teen-agers. 

            I was a surprised.  Mom and Dad liked these prints of wildlife in their natural settings, of frontier men and American Indians, and I couldn’t imagine how their house would look without these pictures.  And I wondered what if more than one of us chose the same print.  Mom explained the plan.  We were each to write the name of one or two favorite prints on a piece of paper and give it to her.  And while our chosen prints would be ours, she and Dad wanted to keep them hanging on their walls for a few more years.

            Mom knew us well – we didn’t choose the same prints.  After her death, when Dad sold their home and moved to a smaller place, Mom’s Ralph McDonald print collection had already been divided.  The Statesman, a picture a mockingbird, has hung on my living room wall since 1992.    

            Husband’s mother often shopped at home. When we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, she gave us a set of glasses, Princess House Heritage pattern juice glasses.  Ann explained that they were really old, may fifty-years old, and she’d bought them at a ‘home party.’  I was always amused when Ann would say, “That’s really old,” a way of saying that’s something valuable and keep it.  I treasure these hand-blown etched crystal glasses and they fit my young Grands’ hands perfectly.  One of my favorite Christmas gifts from Ann was a plain heavy glass butter dish with a domed top that had been her mother’s.  It’s got a few scratches and a chip which reminds me that it set on the family kitchen table when Ann was a child. 

            Not all shop-at-home gifts are sentimental.  I have a gift stash:  Christmas hand towels, fancy napkins, notecards, pens with pom-pom tops, scented candles, magnifying glasses, copies of a favorite devotional book, and even a small decorative pillow.  These are items purchased at discount prices or gifts I’ve received and someone else will enjoy more than me.  (I’m careful not to re-gift to the one who gave the gift!)

            Shopping at home would be a good choice this year, but I’m not sure what’s here for our Grands.  What if I wrapped home things in Christmas packages, and we play a good old-fashion game of Grab Bag?  It could be a new tradition.

‘Tis the Week Before Christmas

‘Tis the week before Christmas and my life is a’jumble.  There’s much to do.  Write lists.  Shop. Wrap gifts.  Attend Christmas programs and plays.  Bake and decorate cookies with my Grands.  Deliver gifts.  Watch Christmas movies. Read A Christmas Carol, for the umpteenth time.  

            When the hustle and bustle overwhelmed me, I brewed a cup of tea and settled into a favorite chair where I can see an outside birdfeeder and our Christmas tree.  Finches and cardinals calmed my thoughts.  A nativity ornament, carved of olive wood and bought in Jerusalem, reminded me why I celebrate Christmas and soothed my spirit. 

            Ornaments on my tree take me back to memories of childhood, to the people who cared for and loved me.  I think of gifts.  On Christmas Eve, I opened one gift:  flannel pajamas.  Long sleeve, button-up the front, collared pajama tops and pajama pants with tucks just above the hem so they could be lengthened as I grew.  I never saw Mom make them, but I knew pajamas were in the wrapped package that she put under the tree a few days before Christmas. 

            Granny always gave money, but the amount varied.  In November, she’d say, “I don’t know how much you’ll get for Christmas.  It depends on how the ‘baccy sells.”  Granny had a tobacco base that she leased and when those dried tobacco leaves were sold in mid-December, she’d get a check.  Most years she gave me a $5 bill, a generous gift in the 1950s, but a few years Granny gave three $5 bills, a small fortune!

            Christmas Day dinners were the most special meal of the year. Dad, my uncles, and grandfather wore white shirts and ties; Mom, my aunts, and grandmothers wore church dresses and pearl necklaces.  The dining room table was covered with a white tablecloth and set with the finest china and crystal and an arrangement of fresh flowers and evergreens.  Children sat around card tables, also covered with a tablecloth. Platters of sliced turkey and cornbread dressing and bowls filled with vegetables and salads were placed on the dining table where the adults sat.  Dad’s blessing included gratitude for Jesus, our family, and the food.  Then we children stood at the corners of the dining room table and filled our plates as the food was passed.  Mom and her sisters served their best desserts: sugar plum pudding, chocolate cream pie, and apple stack cake. 

            I want to carry the love and my memories of Christmases past to Christmas present.  When my Grands decorate cookie angels and Christmas trees, sticky icing and sprinkles will coat my kitchen counter.  When gifts are opened and paper and ribbon clutter the floor, I want my Grands to know the love I felt. When our traditional breakfast is served, Son and Daughter will tell their children that they always ate country ham and angel biscuits and strawberry jam on Christmas morning.  

            Christmas isn’t about lists and tasks, it’s about people and sharing love.  May we all enjoy Christmas preparations and activities, and make memories that will be cherished.####

Let Children Give

A young fifth grade student knows his teacher well.  Mrs. R calls him a rough tough boy and she shared this story.  Their school gives money and a shopping trip to children who wouldn’t have money and an opportunity to shop.  This little guy asked Mrs. R, “What do you want for Christmas?” She answered,

“For you to work hard!”

            That wasn’t what he had in mind.  “I’m going shopping and I have SO MUCH money and I want to get you something,” he said.  Mrs. R thanked him with a big hug and told him he didn’t need to get her a gift.  “I’m still going to get you lipstick or perfrume (his word) because they’re what you love,” he said.

            Mrs. R, a teacher for twenty years, wears perfume and bright colored lipstick.  And this rough tough guy wants to give her something he knows she’ll like.  Not because he has to, not because his mother told him to take a gift to his teacher, not because his teacher asked for a gift.  Because he wants to.  I hope he finds the brightest red lipstick ever and I know Mrs. R will wear it.  And if he gives the cheapest sweet-smelling perfume, she’ll wear it too, at least a few times. And that rough tough boy will probably work harder when she does.

            Mrs. R’s story took me back to my classroom where elementary age children brought me Christmas gifts for twenty-five years.  I appreciated every gift, but the ones that touched my heart were the ones that children chose.  Like the small ceramic hummingbird that sits in the window over my kitchen sink.  When David’s mother picked him up after school that Christmas party day, she made sure he didn’t hear her as she apologized for such a small gift and said he wouldn’t bring the gift she’d chosen.  David chose the perfect gift.

            My Christmas tree has a small flock of birds: cardinals, a blue jay, doves, partridges.  All gifts from students.   Brooke handed me a beautifully store-wrapped gift and said, “Momma said you had better like these.  They cost a lot of money!”  Inside were two green partridges which hang with other birds at eye level on my Christmas tree where I see them every morning as I sit and drink coffee and enjoy quiet time.

            My sweaters were often decorated with pins, scatter pins of all kinds.  Best teacher.  Santa with rhinestone eyes.  Angels with gold wings.  Gifts that students chose and when I wore them, the givers stood straighter, work harder, smiled more.

            I also remember gifts I really liked, but left the giver uncertain.  Gift certificates that were just a piece of paper.  Banana bread that the giver didn’t like.  A glass pie plate.

            During this Christmas shopping season, let children choose the gifts they give.  Let them know the joy, the excitement of watching someone open what they chose.  Let them smile when someone hugs and says thank you.  Let them give.

Memories of Christmas 1991

Three Christmas gifts remained unopened. Gifts Mom began for her grandchildren, my daughter, son, and niece, but didn’t finish. A sudden heart attack had ended her life in April.

Six months later, Dad sold their home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. This Christmas was even sadder as our family sat cramped in a small living room – so different from Mom and Dad’s home.

Dad looked at his grandchildren and said, “Those gifts are for you from your grannie.” My brother and I and our spouses sat nearby. Alicia and Sarah, age 17, and Eric, age 15, frowned. “She was making something special for you this Christmas,” said Dad. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

I said, “It’s three almost identical gifts.”

“It’s something you can use now, and Grannie hoped you’d keep and maybe even pass it on to your kids,” said Dad.

“How do we know which gift is ours?” asked Eric.

“By numbers. The way Grannie always did. Susan has folded papers numbered 1, 2, 3, and the packages have numbers on them,” Dad explained.

Alicia, Sarah, and Eric held their gifts. Silence filled the room. After quickly ripping into other packages, now they were silent and still on the floor beside Dad’s chair. “Go ahead, open them,” Dad said.

They paced themselves to see their gifts at the same time. “A quilt!” Sarah and Alicia said in unison. Eric stood and wrapped his quilt around his shoulders. The girls did the same, hugging their quilts close to their bodies.

“I love it!” Sarah said, “But Grannie always said that she’d never make a quilt.” She pulled her white and navy blue patchwork quilt tighter.

“But she made clothes and stuffed animals,” Alicia said. “Our quilts are exactly the same,” she said to Sarah. Alicia looked at Eric’s quilt. “Yours is the same, except dark red where ours is blue.” Each quilt had white rectangles and calico fabric.

“Grannie made lots of stuff, but this is the best,” Eric said. Alicia, Eric, and Sarah sat wrapped in their quilts. No one spoke. We wiped tears and breathed deeply.

Dad rubbed his eyes, then said, “Grannie wanted you to have something you’d keep. You’ll be going off to college soon. You can take your quilts. She began cutting and sewing about two years ago. She was determined to finish them for this Christmas, but…” Dad’s voice faltered.

I continued. “She’d finished one, was quilting the second, and had pieced the third. Dad and I found a woman, Mrs. Horst, to finish them.”

“Aunt Susan, do you know which one Grannie really made?” asked Sarah.

“I’ll answer that,” said Dad. “She made them all. That wonderful lady stitched for your grannie. We were led up the dirt road to her house. She’s a godly woman. She told me she said prayers of blessings as she quilted and hoped to make such beautiful quilts for her children.”

Mom’s quilts covered beds in college dormitory rooms and then apartments when each of her grandchildren married. And now they are on great-grandsons’ beds.

Mom’s quilts were gifts to keep.

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Nativity is Always Here

The cardboard Nativity was stored in a cardboard Christmas card box. When I was a child, I set up this scene of Jesus’s birth. I unfolded the three-section base to lay flat on top of Mom’s small living room chest with drawers. I raised the many one-inch tabs to make sure they stood straight. The hardest part was to stand the three-sided stable in the slits cut in the tabs. Thru the years those slits wore out and wouldn’t hold up the stable that was about 6” tall and 10” wide. So it was propped up in the back with a skinny jar of jelly that Mom said no one saw. The two landscape desert scenes leaned backward, almost touching the wall.

Then I placed the people and animals in slits on the tabs as labeled. Baby Jesus in a cradle in the center of the stable and Mary and Joseph beside him. A shepherd boy, two sheep, a donkey, a cow, and three Wise Men all had their places. Now, six decades later, those tabs are much more tattered and the dessert scenes and stable are propped with toy wooden building blocks. And it’s okay if anyone notices.

In another Nativity, one Wise Man’s crown is chipped. It’s shorter on one side so this Wise Man stands behind the other two. A dab of gold paint covers the crown’s white jagged ceramic edge.

For 47 years, this Nativity, that Husband and I bought the second year we were married, has been part of Christmas. Most of those years, baby Jesus slept in his cradle between Mary and Joseph and the three Wise Men stood outside the wooden stable. But when Daughter and Son were young and placed the figures, the Wise Men stood close to Jesus. Closer than the shepherd boy and his sheep. Closer than the cow and donkey. The Wise Men carried gifts and Daughter and Son thought they should be closest to the newborn baby.

As Daughter and Son got older, the Nativity characters often moved. Mary and a Wise Man switched places or the cow and donkey disappeared – hidden away. My children laughed about how long it took me to realize something was amiss.

A few years ago my oldest Grand said to me, “You know, Gran, the Wise Men weren’t there when Jesus was born. They shouldn’t be close the stable.” David said the Kings should be across the room until after December 25. “So maybe you could start moving them closer about a week after Christmas.” And that’s what happened.

A few days ago, four-year-old Jesse stood with his elbows propped on the table in front of the ceramic nativity. My Grand’s chin rested inches from baby Jesus. “Gran’s had that a long time. It’s always here,” Jesse’s big sister Lou told him. “Don’t play with it, but you can touch and move the people and animals.”

Lou is right. The Nativity is always here and it can be touched.

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Surprising Teacher Gifts

“Open mine next! Mama said you’d like it. Is that your favorite color? Mom said everybody needed what I got you.” My students sat on the floor at my feet, and they were excited while I opened the pile of Christmas gifts on my desk. And often, they were just as surprised as I was by the gifts they gave.

During my teaching career, I taught third, fourth, and sixth graders, and parents – usually mothers – purchased gifts for teachers. So when children shouted, “Open mine next!” it was because they wanted to know what they were giving.

When I taught, poplar teacher gifts were Christmas pins and tree ornaments. I have ornaments, with students’ names written on the back, that I still put on my tree each year. And I’ve kept some pins, but the ones with the words ‘Best Teacher Ever’ were quickly stored away.

Some gifts weren’t typical teacher presents. A 3rd grade boy hung his head as he handed me a wrapped package and told me his mother had picked it out. It was a Teflon pie pan. I thanked Steven, hugged him, and assured him it was a great gift because I didn’t have a pie pan like that one. My assurances didn’t help. The other children had beamed when I held glittery red Christmas ornaments and pinned one more pin on my red sweater. This little guy couldn’t be consoled. Later his mother told me that he’d wanted to give me a sparkly Christmas tree pin, but she wanted me to have a pie pan like hers. This was a lesson. Years later, I wanted my own children to like the teacher gifts they gave.

Sometimes students told me about the cost of their gifts. When a girl gave me a store-wrapped package with gold paper and a red bow, I knew where the gift had been purchased and most items there weren’t typical teacher gifts. It was tree ornaments – a pair of beautiful green-feathered birds. As the students and I oohed and aahed, the gift giver said, “I picked them out and momma said you’d better like them because they cost a lot.” For the past twenty-five years, these two birds have decorated my tree and I still like them.

One boy was really proud of his gift and said his mother thought every teacher should be able to use it and it’d be different from everyone else’s. She was right – no one else gave me a photo album and I did use it. When I thanked him, he said, “Momma got a really good deal on it. It was on sale for half price and she had a coupon.” And then he told me exactly how much the album cost.

Students taught me that the gifts they give should be something they like, no matter what the mothers and the teachers think or the cost. Children give from their hearts.

Christmas Then and Now

That tree, the one in the middle of the field, looked perfect. Not too wide. Just the right height. Except when we got close, we saw bagworms. This wouldn’t be our Christmas tree. When I was a child, my family went to our farm to cut a cedar tree. Sometimes Mom stayed home and baked sugar cookies and made hot chocolate, using Hershey’s cocoa and sugar, and sometimes she went with Dad, my brother Roger, and me.

Dad drove the tractor, a red International Cub, and I sat on the seat with him so I could steer, but Dad kept his hands resting on the steering wheel. Roger and Mom walked beside the tractor unless it was really cold and then she drove the family car as far as it was safe on the dirt road.

We passed the white wooden house where Dad’s grandparents had lived and where he was born. No one lived in the dilapidated farmhouse in the late 1950s and the tobacco base and pastureland were rented to a neighboring farmer.

At the foot of Huddleston Knob in Pickett County, cedar trees were plentiful, but choosing the right one took time. Like the one with bagworms, other trees appeared perfect from a distance, but closer they were much too wide or had a gaping hole with no branches. Dad traipsed from tree to tree holding out his arms to gauge a tree’s width and standing tall to his full 6’ 2” to estimate a tree’s height.

When we finally chose one, Dad and Roger chopped it down and we carried it home, a few miles away, tied to the top of the car. One side of the tree was always thinner with fewer branches so that side faced the living room picture window. Because Mom wanted the metal star placed at the treetop to graze the ceiling, Dad cut an inch at a time off the tree’s trunk until it was exactly the height she wanted.

My two oldest Grands, ages 11 and 13, went to their family’s basement last week and lugged a cardboard box to their living room. Elsie and Samuel opened the box and unpacked the sections of their 8’ tall artificial tree. They lay the pieces on the floor to determine which one had the longest branches and would be at the bottom of the tree. They and their parents stacked and secured each section to build their Christmas tree.

Then they adjusted the long metal branches so that they looked like a tree that had been cut in the woods.   And the whole family fluffed the pine needles on each limb, unfolding and ruffling the small plastic twigs that have been squashed in a box for eleven months.

I cherish the memory of cutting a tree in the woods. But, you know what, my Grands will cherish their memory of putting up their Christmas tree too because they’ll remember family time. Time together – that’s the happy memory.

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The More I Love Christmas

Every December I reread a Christmas card Husband and I received in 2009 from Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh. The front reads ‘The older I get, the more I love Christmas’ and inside a poem begins with these words: The older I get the simpler my holiday preparations become, the closer I feel to old friends as I write my Christmas cards, the more fondly I remember Christmases past.

To give credit to the poet I googled the beginning lines and found that same card is available from Walter Drake, but no credit is given to the writer. The words inspire me to step back, away from the hustle and bustle of Christmas, to appreciate Christmas moments, past and present.

Our Christmas tree is a memory tree. Each ornament tells a story. I love the plastic Santa astride a white horse that hung on my family’s tree in the 1950s. I cherish a plastic lantern, with a sprig of plastic holly, that was tied with a red bow onto a big white box Husband gave me in 1968. Inside that big box were smaller boxes and inside the smallest box was my engagement ring. I treasure the paper ornaments that Son and Daughter made in kindergarten. I hang many teacher ornaments that students gave me through the years. I remember a 6th grade girl handing me a wrapped box and saying, “Mom said you better like these. They cost a lot of money.” Now, thirty something years later, I love those birds more than the day I opened her gift.

Last week two Grands, ages 6 and 8, wore their mother’s red dresses and sang in their school Christmas program. As Elaine and Ruth sang Away in a Manger with their classmates, half my heart was in the past when Daughter wore those dresses. She was seven and a second grader when she wore one and sang Silver Bells at a Northeast Elementary School program.

As I drove Ruth and ten-year-old Lou across town a few days ago, they laughed at the music on my Christmas CD. “That’s sounds so old-timey,” one said and burst into a jazzed up version of Joy to World. I turned off the recorded music and we sang. I joined them in White Christmas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And my Grands laughed because I sang off key.

There’s no other time of the year that friends and acquaintances greet each other with such enthusiasm. We hold hugs a little longer. Shout Merry Christmas. Smile bigger. And there’s no other time that I enjoy opening mail more. I love Christmas cards. Greetings from friends and family, from across town and across oceans.

I look forward to Christmas Eve candlelight service. The tradition of worshipping and hearing the birth story from the book of Luke and holding a single lit candle while singing Silent Night. Celebrating the miracle of Christmas.

The older I get, the more I realize Christmas is a matter of the heart.

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