By Kairis Joy Colter Burt
“This year I have decided nobody is allowed to spend any money for Christmas.” My mother’s announcement caught us off guard even at the peak of the recession. Then she added, “Everyone will give something they already have.”
That will be a piece of cake! I thought.
“It has to be something nice, something meaningful and heartfelt.”
Well, there goes my easy solution for a growing missing sock collection….
Suddenly I was aware of my attachments to my possessions. I was not one of those people. I simply have all of my things because I like having them. I had earned them, right? (A long drawn out sigh) Giving my things away was going to be harder than I thought, much harder than it should have been for a Christian mother. I was going to have to dig deep. It was time to invest in my spirit of giving.
My mother always said if she were to plan a family reunion she would reserve a booth at a restaurant. Suffice it to say her side of the family is small. She never knew her father. Her mother passed away in 1995, her only brother in 2006. He never had children. She was the matriarch of two sons, three daughters, and our families, yielding a combined total of 12 grandchildren, if you included second marriages. Still, our small numbers did not diminish the size of the excitement for the season. We chose to meet at mom’s that year for dinner and the much anticipated gift exchange.
I am a proud Christmas Eve shopper. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, I’m self-employed. I don’t actually know what my gift budget is until then. I do lots of planning ahead of time, but the reality is, January business is typically very slow (ironically from people overspending during the holidays). This means I have to pay December’s and January’s bills out of December’s income. Then the push is on to earn “extra” money for gifts, holiday meals, and ways to entertain children on a three-week winter school break.
Second, certain stores have better deals on quality gifts for “last-minute” shoppers. Radio Shack has a fantastic $20 gift wall and stays open late the night before Christmas; they also take checks. But this year I had a bigger problem – a secret pride of sorts. I am known for fantastic and unusual gifts. How on earth was I going to maintain my reputation producing gifts from possessions I “already have”? We also keep the Kwanzaa celebration. For my family this means the children get gifted twice!
What I noticed immediately is that my giving zeal stopped short at the things that meant the most to me. It was kind of like trying to make a skittish horse cross a quick stream. It upset me because I liked believing I was generous and unselfish. This was going to take my creativity to a whole new level, and my pride turned humility had no choice but to go along for the ride.
I decided to take an aggressive, outside-of-the-box approach. By nature I am a problem solver, almost to the point of obsession. This was going to have to be more methodical than a Ken Ken puzzle. But with a little shift in thinking, it was going to be more fun than a Sudoku Rubik’s cube. The most important gift, the one for my mother, was going to require lots of help. I sent out an email blast and turned my mind toward the rest of the family.
Rather than searching for the things that would hurt the least upon parting, I began to take a mental inventory of the things that meant most. After all, these were the most important people on the planet, right? This was jamaa yangu, my family (in Swahili). Immediately rising to the top of the list were books, photos, and my cell phone.
It may sound crazy but my “family plan” was the catalyst for the absolute genius of all my other gifting ideas. I made a trip to the Sprint store to see what they could do with the “extra lines” included on my account. It took a little negotiating. They tried offering two different “free” phones: one with bells, whistles, and frills, and one that was basic. By basic I mean the fanciest feature it had was the “send” button for making calls. I mentioned the tension that would bring between the two children who were the recipients – something about “World War III.” They understood. A manager pressed some buttons and I was able to have two fancy, Internet capable, flip camera phones activated right then. I did have to pay the sales tax (it’s a California thing), but I didn’t think mom would mind. The phones themselves were free accessories for the phone lines I already had.
Next on my list came all my nieces and nephews. I gave up amazing coffee table books. These photo journals were 14×20 inch, full color publications that had originally been $50 each. Subjects ranged from bugs to reptiles to scenic vistas around the world. I even gave up an Anne Geddes book of the most adorable babies I had ever seen. (I did tell my niece she needed to keep it long enough to pass on to her daughter. It wasn’t really a threat…. It was more of a value declaration. Yes, that’s it. A crystal clear value declaration.) Inside each book I included another treasure. Each child received pictures of their father as a child. Squeals of surprise, joy, and even a, “He’s always had that hairline?” made the sacrifice more than worth it. My targeted gifting goals had met their marks.
Other gifts included games, clothes, gift certificates for skills, food, a week with my housekeeper, and even a favorite coffee mug.
Seeing my children get into the spirit was very moving. My middle son, a teen, chose to gift his little brother with his prized possession: a one-of-a-kind screen print t-shirt with the matching sneakers. It was miles too big. That shirt is still in the “baby’s” drawer. He’s 10 years old now and waiting to be able to fit into it. The memory still touches me.
The last gift I gave was still a work in progress on Christmas day. I chased everyone out of the back room, Dad’s old office, in order to finish what I was doing without spoiling the surprise. It took hours! When I was finally ready, I came out with an explanation. I gifted my mother my most valuable possession, the one thing I have never not had.
“Mom, the best gift I could ever give you, the thing that means the most to me, is you.”
People from all across the country had responded to my email request. Each had sent a favorite story about Mom, for me to include in a book about her. Printed, bound, and gift wrapped was what she meant to her family and friends. The ending of this book was my favorite part. One of her friends had a picture that she had never seen. Smiling back at her from these pages of memories was a drop dead gorgeous picture of herself from 30 years prior!
I’ve always heard about jaw-dropping shockers. This was the first time I had ever witnessed one. That moment was a gift I could never have purchased with all the money in the world.
P.S. Late night motherly checking in on children found them peacefully sleeping, with smiles and new cell phones clenched tightly in grateful hands. Take that, Radio Shack!
Kairis Joy Colter Burt
Co-Editor & Contributing Writer, B.L.O.G. Magazine
At 40-something Kairis is a divorced, single Mother of three biological children, and three more born in her heart, preschool to college aged. She’s a Labor Coach, a professional birth Doula who approaches the world from that viewpoint; holding your hand, reminding you to relax, breathe, trusting God with your purpose, no matter what your situation is giving birth to. She’s a volunteer teacher for homeless women, a project manager for a pregnant teen mentoring program, on two non-profit Boards, and a praise dancer. She also has a passion for natural beauty; a self-proclaimed, self employed natural hair artist, escaping only to coach laboring women at whatever hour a baby decides to enter the world. Doulas, like Brides of Christ, are on-call 24/7.