“Are we never to have a moment’s peace? The rent here may be low but I believe we have it on very hard terms.” – Marianne Dashwood, from the movie Sense & Sensibility
I was raised by extremely frugal parents in a large family with an upper middle-class income. I wasn’t the type of kid who got name-brand clothes, licensed characters on my shoes, a sweet sixteen party, a new car upon high school graduation or even a cent of my college education paid for. They claimed me on their taxes and brought me a box of canned goods once a semester. But I never went hungry, was always warm and well-fed, had music lessons, and if they could afford it (and I nagged them enough), somehow my parents always found a way to provide what I wanted.
For example, I remember when my mother had a small business and we attended a craft show around Christmas time to sell her wares to the masses. I saw a little hand painted doll made of clothespins that I absolutely HAD to have. At another booth was an upholstered rocking chair made from a tin can, that I just KNEW would fit her. My mother told me no, absolutely not, but on my birthday, there she was – that very clothespin doll I had longed for – sitting on top of my cake. I was so happy, I cried!
I never imagined that half of my adult life would be spent in economic circumstances less pleasant than those I had growing up. But sometimes choices lead to consequences and sometimes life just happens.
I was very poor for the three years following a divorce. I remarried and times were good for many years until my husband got injured on the job. Times got lean and then leaner over the next four years. I found myself and my family in the dubious position of being an object of charity. Can I be honest? No kid ever died from not having a stack of presents under the tree, and sometimes, stacks of presents detract from the meaning of the season. Why? Because those stacks of presents declare louder than any words – like a great big slap in the face, sometimes – that YOU, the parent, could not provide for you kid… and you know it and your kid knows it. Some children are grateful, but other children resent it, become embarrassed that people at church or school know they are poor, and hold it against their parent instead of being glad that anyone in their larger circle even thought enough of them to be so kind. With anonymous, already-wrapped presents, parents are also robbed of that happy satisfaction that comes from the children torturing themselves over guessing what is in the box, because they do not know what is in the box either. There is also the risk of overdoing it. Parent may only want so much or be able to provide for so much and are satisfied. Then the Do-Gooders show up with more piles of stuff and then kids compare the piles and wonder what’s up and why others think they are poor. Anybody ever think to ask permission first before presuming that people WANT help?
Can I be voice for the poor? Here are some suggestions I would like to throw out to sincere souls in the universe who really want to make a difference in somebody else’s life during the holidays.
1. If someone really wants to help, what is most appreciated by the poor at Christmas is cash, food items or household items they can not afford to replace and/or might not even possess in the first place. Things like blankets, quilts, bed pillows, pillowcases, throw pillows, sheets, bath towels, dishtowels, mattress pads, potholders, shower curtains, table cloths, window curtains, throw rugs, doormats, placemats, kitchen knives, spatulas and wooden spoons usually end up on the”get later” list when parents are worried about where they will find the money to pay for rent, utilities, new shoes and clothes. Try to be careful about the food items - a fruit basket, box of oranges, or other real-food item (even popcorn!) really is better than a box of canned goods or a plate of sweets.
2. Only the parents are the ones who know exactly what the children want, need or would even be excited about receiving. It’s kind of awkward to open a present you can’t use and feel like somebody doesn’t know you at all – like makeup and perfume for someone who doesn’t wear any (are you saying I need it?) or a pop-culture toy from a TV show or movie a child doesn’t even know or worse, isn’t allowed to watch. It’s a waste for the giver and a waste for the receiver
3. It’s kind of awkward to open a donated present Christmas morning like a cheap remote-control car, or dollar-store socks, when right beside it is the expensive car or socks or doll or whatever that the parents scrimped and sacrificed to buy. Obviously, there is the annoying redundancy. But beyond that there is again this feeling of having a stranger in the room and the intimacy of the moment who you never really invited to be there. This situation happened to me more than once, and again it feels like a waste.
4. It can really hurts the feelings of a receiver when ALL of the packages come from the dollar store or have clearance price tags still attached to them, are obviously re-gifted or in some other way convey some other message than the true spirit of giving. “Well, we did our duty and helped the poor, but weren’t about to spend more than $10 on them.” Or worse, “Your happiness and comfort don’t really mean as much to us as the kudos we get by being seen by others putting your wrapped gift in the collection pile. No one will ever know it came from DollarDeal anyway.” If you have, in full honesty of heart, bought something for a donation that you would have given your own loved one, then the Golden Rule applies and I retract this point.
5. Someone even bought us coats one year which they proudly informed us, before we even opened the wrapped packages, that they had bought from a second-hand store. I guess they had heard at church that we needed coats, but we figured out a way since that time to provide. Maybe they had even heard me say that we weren’t picky – they could be hand-me-downs or second-hand. After all, it had begun snowing in October that year! Two days before Christmas we got an unexpected knock at the door. They delivered the gifts personally and then stayed to watch us unwrap each one, to which we, of course, obligingly “ooh”ed and “ahhh”ed. It was very uncomfortable and embarrassing for us. We weren’t quite sure why they stayed and it was embarrassing and kind of hurtful to have this other woman fuss over the kids trying on the coats like they were her kids and not mine. We didn’t even need them at that point! Hadn’t she seen the children wearing their winter coats to church? So then we had to stuff TWO of everything into our little hall closet, and of course then we felt obligated to wear everything they gave us to church instead of what we already had. Did they really give those gifts to us, or did they give those things to us to make themselves feel like good, perhaps even superior people? I always felt weird around them after that, especially when they would ask one of my kids, in front of someone else, “That’s the coat WE bought you, isn’t it?”
6. If you are worried about the parents not spending the money on the kids, then there are two solutions. Put up a toy collection and then have all the needy parents come to a designated place where the unwrapped donations are all sitting out. Allow them to maintain their self-respect, and some semblance of control by picking out items for their children and families themselves. The rule would be that everyone has to take a turn, only picking one item at a time, so that all can have a fair chance at premium things first. This was done at the domestic violence shelter-house where I lived during the divorce, and I thought it was kind, fair and respectful. I wept repeatedly that Christmas over all the generosity and goodness that total strangers could show to women like me and our families.
7. The other cashless solution is to ask parents SPECIFICALLY what they and their children SPECIFICALLY want. Be HONEST and give them the amount you are willing to spend, cuz, I mean, they feel weird in the first place about being singled out and then they feel awkward about what to say because they do not have a price range. Ask for a detailed list or write it down as you talk to them in person. Then be sure to get THAT THING and not something else. Give it to the parent unwrapped and make SURE it is what they wanted. Otherwise Christmas morning is also upsetting for the parents who did not buy X thing because they were promised X thing would be bought by the generous friend. Then kid is disappointed and parents are frustrated because it may have been the only thing kid wanted… so why did friend bother to ask? To ruin Christmas?
Now, my last word of advice is to someone who is struggling this year, who might be the recipient of all this wanted and/or unwanted charity:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. – Mosiah 4:9, from the Book of Mormon.
Please do not just be a taker. Please do not teach your children to be takers and never givers. This is a venom that you do not want taught or passed down in your generations. Please do not make yourself miserable by coveting what others have, not being happy for their happiness, or being upset because you do not have more, can not do more, or are not rich as they are.
I was appalled, while living at the Shelterhouse and it’s grounds through more than one Christmas, to see how floods of abused women arrived sometime shortly before Thanksgiving and would leave again at New Year’s to go back to that “horrible” abuser. Really? Would you ladies stoop that low so as to lie to get all the Toys for Tots and Angel Tree donations? Apparently. The community changed its mind about where the donations would go on a following year and made it available to everyone in the county, not just the Shelterhouse crowd. Holy mackerel, you never saw such a sight in your life… except maybe outside Wal-mart on Black Friday. The pushing! The shoving! The arrogant attitude of entitlement! I was ashamed, watching that, and glad that the people who had spent their money, imagining gaunt, long-faced people in rags, were not there to see such petty, selfish behavior.
Yet I am not immune. One year I made the foolish mistake of being so hurt by a child’s ingratitude (especially because the ex-husband could always give more) that I put Christmas all on a credit card. The child never appreciated the sacrifice and I spent two or three years paying off the debt I had accrued for a child who never empathized. A decade or so later, another rough Christmas happened, and again I made the stupid choice of hearkening to the voices of consumerism. Was it “a good Christmas”? I guess so, minus that sick feeling in the back of my mind about the interest now accruing on the credit card. During the following year, tripping over the things we had bought, and sometimes feeling closed in by the clutter, I regretted having succumbed to the lie that Christmas can only be happy if you have lots of things. A lot of the big-ticket things we bought that we thought the kids would crumble to pieces over if they did not receive didn’t even get used or played with very much!!! What did I do it for? Why did I kill myself buying all that STUFF I couldn’t afford for children who are more blessed and affluent than most of the rest of the world?! Why did I listen to the sirens of my own self-doubt again? That the children would not be happy or would not think I loved them if I did not shower them with store-bought presents, and lots of them. My happiest memory from that Christmas isn’t even connected to that crucible of complication. It is a simple thing: the memory of snuggling up in quilts and afghans, while the snow fell softly down outside, eating Christmas goodies a kind soul had given us, and enjoying a movie together in a friend’s house where we were dog-sitting.
And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give. And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received. – Mosiah 4:24-25, from the Book of Mormon
So live within your means and don’t worry about what you do not have. Express gratitude and lots of it! Play Pollyanna’s Glad Game if you must and then fake it till you make it! Take the time to send thank you notes, even if the donor was anonymous, you can find out the halfway point: the church, the school, or whoever it was, and express gratitude! When fearing that perhaps you don’t have enough under the tree, remember that Christmas is about Christ! It is about love and happiness and cozy family togetherness. Instead of spending those precious December hours trudging the aisles, yet again, shopping to fill up the space under the tree, think, instead, of filling up the space in your children’s hearts with memories. Go sledding. Take a walk in the moonlight in a gentle snowfall. Attend a Christmas concert or church dinner. Go caroling. Or relax and just do nothing at all.
In our family, especially during those hard years, I taught my children to turn their hearts outward at Christmas. We usually celebrated Santa and the stocking thing on December 6, Saint Nicholas Tag, or the nearest Saturday morning to it. Then, with him out of the way, we became Secret Santas to others. We made cookies. We went caroling. We did the Twelve Days of Christmas for quite a few years, in which you leave a piece of the Nativity every day until Christmas Eve – without getting caught. I encouraged the children to make homemade gifts for each other, and I tried to make a few homemade presents as well. Another tradition we started last year, which I will repeat this year, was to buy a children’s book for every day of December. I bought some new, found some used online, and found others at Goodwill. I wrapped them all and put them under the tree. This fills up that space you are so dreading to leave empty. Then, every night, we would gather – the children were so excited! First we would read our scriptures for the day and then a child would pick a book and we would read it. It really doesn’t take much to make the holidays special. Love, time, and attention to the hearts of those you care for.
Sure, there are necessary things, nice things and even wanted things that money can buy, but my memories aren’t about money. I don’t remember how much that little doll and her chair cost. Sadly, in all the moves I have made from place to place, I don’t even have them anymore. All I remember is that my mother loved me and took the time and care to give me a gift that said, in my language, and to my understanding, that I was dear to her. That feeling is the gift she gave me, and which I still have. It’s the feeling of being responded to with exactness and care. Its the feeling now, as a mother of my own children, of realizing what pains she took to get that exact doll (which was one of a kind) … of hiding it away and saving it for me… realizing how she must have felt that secret pleasure of anticipation and joy that only parents understand of being able to give their children just the very thing they have asked for. I hope my response gave her joy. I hope she knew how much her sincere show of love meant to me. I hope the way I treasured her gift and took good care of it let her know that I loved her too. Because at that point it wasn’t about the doll, or about me, or about her anymore… it was about us. Christmas is about unity, about drawing us all together again, because that is the very hope of His birth. That is the very heart of the spirit of giving, and I am so thankful to have been blessed so many times by that kind of love.