By Shirley Van Otten
We have always given gifts as a family. When I was a kid my parents would take us out one night each year to Woolworths to do all of our Christmas shopping. There were four of us kids and Dad would take two and Mom would take two and we’d roam the store and swear each other to secrecy as we would scheme to spend about three dollars total each Christmas.
Those were the days!
We continued our gift giving all through high school and even through college and the years we moved away. I came to really look forward to the Christmas package if only because I loved that moment of opening the box and smelling the smell of mother and home. Whatever else inside there was just could not compare to that singular moment.
After having kids of our own and moving back close we found ourselves getting together for Christmas again. Christmas would come and go and the gifting we did was always nice. But it did not become fun and filled with magic (like the Woolworth days) until when sitting around and playing cards we dreamed up the inspiration of “themed” Christmas gift giving.
As we sat around counting down the hours to the New Year my sister and I were remembering with Mom a shopping trip to Woolworths one Christmas. Mom told us how she worried whether or not we could actually find what was appropriate for Christmas at Woolworths and how mortified she was that we bought things like bobby pins, foot powder and bar soap for each other as gifts. And she expressed surprise that we still thought they were the greatest gifts ever. To me, I told my mother, the Woolworth’s shopping experience was what made the Christmas shopping so fun. We had to do the one stop shopping thing and somehow that made it magic to pull it off each year. We began to wonder if we could somehow do it again even though Woolworth’s was long gone from our little town.
Then my sister suggested that we could do it again. Woolworth’s was our theme as kids, why couldn’t we just choose a theme now as an adult? We could have a Hawaiian Christmas where everything has a tropical theme, she suggested. Or, we could have a Christmas where everything had to cost under $10. Or we could chase a theme of buying just retro gifts – a vintage slinky, for example, which was one of the most sought after gifts of our childhood.
We must have talked this idea for hours and we came up with dozens of suggestions. We didn’t get together again until the following Thanksgiving but my sister had the list and we decided that year we would do a themed Christmas. Because my father was experiencing some health issues and had to make a lifestyle change that year we all decided that Christmas was going to all be about health. On Christmas morning Dad received some new athletic shoes, some work-out t-shirts, some weights and some vitamins. It was all very practical. But what made it interesting was the challenge of what to get each other along the same lines. My sister gave me a cookbook that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise received in any other way and I love the thing.
As we later talked about how the Christmas worked out we decided we were on to a good thing. And we decided to have a little more fun with it. Here is a list of some of the better themes we have worked with over the years:
1. Where in the World? – This Christmas theme came up during a year when we all traveled somewhere far from home. The idea was to come back with gifts reflecting our travel. We went to Hawaii, so our gift giving was fairly easy and maybe even predictable. But my parents traveled to Nova Scotia to visit my uncle’s family. That trip resulted in lots of Maple-themed gifts, from syrups to candies. My sister, whose husband is in the military, had to find gifts in Iraq (this was during the first Gulf war). In all we likely had more variety under the tree that year than ever before.
2. As Seen on TV – This was the Christmas of a million laughs. We decided to pursue this theme when we discovered my Mom had ordered The Clapper, that little gizmo that allows you to turn off the room light by clapping your hands. My parents just raved about that dumb thing. My son took to lighting firecrackers outside the front window just to see if he could turn the lights off and on (he did). But that got us to talking and we decided that trying Christmas by buying what we could off of television would be a real challenge — and it really was. We had some duplicate gifts that year. I bought my Dad a singing fish and so did my brother. We had a good laugh on Christmas morning trying to synchronize them in a duet. It was a silly Christmas and one that will never be forgotten.
3. If I Could Be Five Again – We sat around after Thanksgiving and talked about what we most wanted from Santa when we were five years old. That led to a challenging theme – a retro toy Christmas that featured the real deal. The biggest challenge was my father, who told the story of really wanting a Lionel train set during the Depression. My brother ended up finding it from a collector three states away and it took all of us putting our money together to pull it off. But it was all worth it to see my father as a five year old – on the floor on his stomach playing with the train all day on Christmas.
4. Jesus – This theme was likely our most serious theme and it happened the year Mom died. Mom was a Church-goer all her life and we wanted to have a theme that reflected her in some way. Not all of us stayed religious after leaving home but we did this for Mom, thinking it would be something she would appreciate. So we looked for “Jesus” themed gifts. And it turned out a lot better than I thought it was going to. My brother, who is really opinionated when it comes to things like religion and politics, surprised us all by giving gifts of a picture of my Mom with her favorite Bible verses.
5. I Am What I Eat – This was another funny theme. The idea was to make gifts of food that somehow reflected the person we were buying for. My father, for example, is a big man and he keeps his hair in a 1950s style crew cut. My sister made a gift by using parts of a Mr. Potato Head on a pineapple. When he unwrapped it we all burst out laughing. Each of the gifts given that morning were like that. We laughed so hard we cried.
Theme Christmas gift giving doesn’t mean we didn’t give other gifts. We did.
But by following the theme there is a certain kind of togetherness we enjoy each Christmas that mirrors ever so slightly the Woolworth’s Christmas of our youth. Every Christmas is different and memorable. We find Christmas in our later years as something we look forward to with great anticipation and some family pride.
Our good neighbors who live just south of my parent’s house have told us that they have become accustomed to hearing laughter coming from the Crosley home every Christmas morning. It is just the two of them but they say it has become part of their Christmas each year to hear it.
Dad is getting up there and needs help with just about everything. But he insists on being a part of it figuring that someday he will have to catch up Mom with all we have been doing since she has been gone. She would be mortified, I think, with some of the silly things we have done. One year our theme was “Stuff Mom Hates”, which turned into both a laugh and a cry-fest.
In the end it is always about family. Christmas always is.