Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘Start Planning for Christmas 2016 Now’

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article: “Start Planning for Christmas 2016 Now”

– because this awesome idea takes some time….

When I was about eleven years old, give or take a year either way, my family on my mother’s side decided to shake up Christmas. It was decided that instead of the eleven of us (my parents, sibling, grandparents, aunt, uncle and three cousins) buying “real” gifts for each other, we would instead have a “Dollar Christmas.” I was a child, and I genuinely don’t remember how this switch-a-roo came about, but I am almost certain that it was my mother’s idea (she is the creative one in the family). It may have come about because of finances, or it may have come about as a desire to get back to the true meaning of Christmas, or honestly, it may have come about as a lark. “Let’s be different!” Doesn’t matter.

The rules were simple. Each “participant” needed to buy/create/acquire a gift for each of the other ten participants….but it could not have cost more than one dollar. While it was certainly acceptable to go to the dollar store (which back in the day was more likely a “five and dime”), we were told that the more personal, well-thought out the gift was, the more attention it would receive. Personal notes describing the reason for the gift were encouraged.

I was the oldest of the cousins, so the others were around nine and ten. To say that we children were disappointed in the plan would be an understatement. “We’re going to go to Grandma’s house for Christmas dinner, and come home with ten dollars’ worth of junk? Oh boy!” We were in for a surprise. Not all of the adults were into this plan either. Some saw it as a real pain… first. They were also in for a surprise.

On that first “Dollar Christmas” day, after the meal, we gathered in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room, each of us with a trash bag or shopping bag filled with ten gifts. My mother had taken it upon herself to create stockings for each one of us….hand sewn red velvet stockings, with our names on them. We all opened and shook out our stockings to find that they were three feet long. However, my Grandmother did not get her stocking with the rest of us. She had to open hers alone. When she shook it out, it was as big as she was! Five foot long! We laughed and laughed, that Grandma got a stocking she could actually get into.

We scurried around, putting each of our gifts into the stocking it belonged to, and then we proceeded to start opening the gifts. Eleven people, ten gifts each…110 presents to open. Before, when we bought “real” gifts, in reality, the aunts and uncles bought for the cousins, and the grandparents had a gift for everybody, while the aunt and uncle bought one gift for my mom and dad, and vice versa. Before, there were around fourteen gifts. Now, there were one hundred and ten. At the two hour mark, we agreed to take a break, go to the bathroom, get a fresh drink, and hit the cookie plate. Instead of the fifteen minute rip and tear Christmas extravaganza that we had experienced before, where we left with maybe two presents, we now had a three to four hour laugh-fest and walked away with a stocking full of loot.

I could write ten pages about our adventures/misadventures, but I will simply tell a few stories to help you understand.

On my father’s side, we had a dear, sweet aunt in Pittsburgh that we visited a few times a year. Aunt Mim belonged to a card club, and the hostess of the week had to provide a “prize” for the winning card player. One time when we went to visit Mim, she handed my mother an eight inch long, five inch tall hippopotamus planter. It was ceramic, glossy white, with eyes, nose and mouth painted black. It was hideous. My Aunt said, “I won this at a card game, and you know I don’t garden. I thought you could use it.” My mother accepted it with a gracious thank you. My mother turned it into a dollar gift…it was free, right? She bought one dollar worth of gumballs to fill it, and gave it to her sister, my Aunt Darlene. So, my Aunt opens this gift at “dollar Christmas” and is like, “Oh my, isn’t that……special?” My mother tells the story of how she acquired it. The irony? My aunt owned a ceramic shop, and could have made any ceramic planter on the planet that she wanted….now, she has this. Good for a laugh, but…

The next year the hippo was gifted to someone else, except it had yellow polka dots painted all over its body, and had a one dollar scratch off lottery ticket in it. The following year it was gifted to someone else, and had red dots painted inside the yellow dots, and had a different gift stuffed inside. One year, after all of the presents had been opened, one savvy family member went, “Hey! Where is the hippo? Nobody got the hippo! Who got it last year????” Fifteen minutes of debate and trying to remember who had the hippo, and who was hoarding it resulted in acute disappointment that no one got the hippo.

· Idiot mittens – a genius idea created by northeast parents. Like socks somehow disappear in the dryer, mittens on children get pulled off in cars, and dropped/lost in parking lots and playgrounds. Idiot mittens are a pair of mittens hooked together by 2 feet of elastic, safety pinned to each mitten, and threaded through the arms of the coat. Take off one mitten, it is still in the coat, attached to the other. Take off both, they are still attached to each other, in the coats arms.

I’m twelve. I open a package and find a pair of underwear, my size, my style, with two straps of elastic crisscrossed and safety-pinned to either side. Underwear with suspenders? What the..? I’m confused. My father says “You‘ve heard of “idiot mittens”, right? Those are “Idiot underwear.” Everybody just looked at me. And waited. It suddenly dawned on me why I would need idiot underwear. I went crimson from my toes to my hairline. “Tell the story!” I heard it from all sides. OMG! So, the story….my parents took us to Gettysburg for a weekend. We shared a hotel room – two beds, one bathroom. We had to get dressed, quickly in the bathroom. We went to breakfast at a Perkins restaurant, and when we came back to the car, I said, “Oh yuck! There is a pair of underwear! In the parking lot! Gross!!! Wait, those are mine!” My mother looked at the underwear, and said, “Yep, those are yours, pick them up.” And, there I am, at 12, picking up a skanky pair of underwear in the parking lot of Perkins in Gettysburg, PA, thinking that I’m going to die of embarrassment. We went on tours, and hit souvenir shops, and I forgot all about the most embarrassing moment of my life….until Christmas day, when I got to relieve it for my whole family. See, we had to change quickly in the one bathroom at the hotel….so I stripped all of my clothes, put on clean, but wore the same jeans…..and the undies were caught in the leg of the jeans….so when I stepped out of the car, the undies fell out of my pant leg.

I hate snakes. With a passion. Story of the year, as far as I am concerned, in my teens. Aunt Darlene is walking from one room to another in her house, when a movement catches her eye. She turns, and is looking face to slithering face with a five foot black snake that has wound itself around the wooden spires on the back of her rocking chair, with its head above the back of the rocking chair, weaving back and forth. She lets out a scream (reportedly) of horror movie Oscar winning proportion, which brings Uncle Jim running. He takes one look, runs to the bedroom, and comes back with a shotgun. He’s going to blow it away in the living room. Fortunately (?) there is a handyman on the property, hired for the day to work on the driveway. He comes running at the scream too, takes his shovel, hooks it into the rocking chair, and drags the chair out onto the lawn, where the snake can be dealt with without spraying buckshot throughout the house. So….snake dead. However, all good Pennsylvanians know that black snakes mate for life, and where you find one, there is absolutely, positively, another…..they searched that house top to bottom, moving every piece of furniture, opening every drawer and closet…and didn’t find the mate. My worst nightmare. So, naturally, when I signed up for a credit card and got a beautiful set of four glasses for my trouble, and then found a .25 rubber snake at the dollar store, I was set. I taped the rubber snake to the top of the box. Aunt Darlene lifts the top of the box off of the beautiful glass set, the snake springs down and….Where the heck is Aunt Darlene? One minute she is sitting in a chair opening presents, the next minute…..we didn’t even see her go. This was before video cameras, and certainly before cell phones. I have no film. If I did, we would have won the grand prize on America’s Funniest Home Videos, because, I’m telling you, she cleared a chair and a room so fast that no one saw it happen.

One year, my mom and dad sat with smug smiles on their faces while everyone opened their gifts….expensive, big gifts, like knife sets, dishes, and ultimately, my aunt and uncle getting tickets for a free 3 day cruise from Florida (they just had to get themselves there). No way had they gotten those things for under a dollar, everyone said! It turns out that they were invited to go tour a vacation condo. The only rules were that they had to sit through the two hour presentation/tour, and bring their checkbook. They did. They didn’t buy. They got a prize for their trouble. They got on a list. They spent the whole year touring condos, land, etc., which they never intended to buy, to get gifts. Great fun for them, amazing gifts for everyone else.

If you are sitting there reading this and thinking, well wait a minute. There seems to be a lot of teasing and making fun of each other in this “dollar Christmas” thing, you would be right. 100% right. There was a tremendous amount of teasing, and embarrassment, which was always followed up by hugs. There was also a lot of recognition. If someone got a paper certificate award, there was an excellent chance that someone would buy them a two foot tall trophy at a garage sale, tape their name over the actual winning plaque, and write a note that said, “When you got that award, I thought that you should have gotten this.”

But, sometimes, things went too far. Because. I, unfortunately, was the one who went too far. My Aunt divorced and remarried. The new Uncle came with two boys. Instead of three blond haired girls, all one year apart, there were now five “cousins,” all within a year of each other. Two 12 year olds, an eleven year old, and two ten year olds. I was the oldest, and technically the leader. I was, after all, an “original.” I was somewhat protective of my cousin, who had just acquired two step brothers that she had not asked for. My Aunt and new Uncle had taken the five of us on a fishing trip to Canada (God Bless them), and one day, us three girls grabbed our fishing gear and decided to go fishing. The boys decided to stay with Darlene and bake cookies. The scene was set.

For their first “Family Christmas,” I presented them both with a fifty cent set of measuring cups that I got at the dollar store, with a note addressed to “Suzy Homemaker.” Since they didn’t relate to the “story,” I got to tell it. When I finished telling it, I saw tears in both of their eyes, and disappointment from all of the adults. So, 110 presents. I got to sit there for an hour or two, contemplating what I had just done. I got it. Even though I was only 12 or 13. It was one of their first Christmases with us, and I had ruined it. Had hurt their feelings just for sport. I had ample time to figure out the error of my ways. When we took a break, I called them over. “David. Doug. C’mere.” They looked at me with terror, and shied away. “I know that you are mad at me. Come here.” They came. I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I get it now. When you chose to bake cookies with Darlene, you were just trying to have a moment with your new stepmom. And, you were totally right. Darlene is awesome, and you should spend time with her. I’m an idiot, and I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. You are family now.” I hugged them. I smoothed it over. Fixed it, as best as a young teen could. Thirty years later, I still remember. I was a good girl. I babysat infants. I had “adopted grandparents” through the church that I visited every week. No one would ever have said that I was a “mean girl.” Except my new step cousins David and Doug, and maybe their Dad, who had to sit through this family dollar Christmas hoping his kids wouldn’t cry.

Here is what happened. David and Doug, my two new step cousins, who I kind of thought of as girly guys, graduated from High School, and went directly to the Air Force. Girly my butt….tough enough to make it through basic training, and make it a career. One in Special Forces, and one as an Engineer. Well, shut my mouth!

Here is what also happened. On 9/11, I was a hardworking, yet spoiled middle class white woman in the United States. I was working for myself, and didn’t have to get up at the crack of butt. I crawled out of bed around 7:30 am, got my beloved three year old out of bed, got him breakfast, and flipped on the TV. Just another day. Until I saw the first tower go down. What? And saw the Pentagon get hit. And watched the second tower go down. I went into panic mode. I called daycare and told them I wouldn’t be bringing Noah in that day. I told him to bring me his shoes, because we had important errands to run. I put him in the car, and went to our banks drive through. I withdrew the maximum amount of money I could on my debit card. Why? Because, I believed with all of my heart that the world was imploding, that our way of living was coming to an end, and that because the financial center of our country had just been hit, that there would be a run on the banks. When I got my money, I immediately circled to the closest gas station, and filled the tank. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a line, wasn’t pandemonium. Did people not realize what was happening? Did people not realize that the government could declare martial law? Filled the tank, went into the store, bought a gallon of milk and a carton of cigarettes. With what I had in the freezer and cupboards, we could make it for a few weeks.

I went home, locked us in, and waited for chaos. I’m thinking that this morning is a siren song for every lunatic on the planet to go ahead and do every crazy thing that they have ever thought about doing. Go ahead and blow it up! Go ahead and attack the school or daycare. I was wrong, thank God. Apparently 9/11 was mind blowing enough that even the crazies couldn’t come up with a plan.

So I get us locked down. Priority number one, take care of your own. And then it hits me. Totally hits me. While I’m protecting the kid and the homestead, guess who is going to protect the whole U. S. of A.? That’s right, David and Doug. I stop worrying about what might or might not happen in good old Franklin, PA, ‘cause I’ve got that covered. I start worrying about whether my cousins are in the thick of it in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Some of you are going, “Wait, how did we go from a different Christmas tradition with stockings and dollar gifts to 9/11 and praying to God that your step-cousins didn’t get blown up?” That is the beauty of the dollar Christmas. If my sole relationship with David and Doug was sitting in a living room as “steps” watching each other open a sweater, we would not have the relationship that we have today.

The dollar Christmas requires that those involved listen to each other for the whole year. It means that when someone hears, “Did you hear what happened to Kim last Thursday?” we all go, “No. No I did not. Do tell,” while we pull out a pen and paper. It means that no one’s secret is safe.

It is the polar opposite of walking into a box store two days before Christmas and spending $30-$50 on something that the receiver may or may not want, or may get duplicates of. A dollar or less. No huge expenditure that you immediately regret.

It means coupons, garage sales and auctions. It means building something, making something by hand. It means thinking about the people you have to get gifts for months in advance, not the day before.

Here’s the biggie: Three years ago, 2012, what did you get for Christmas? Don’t know? Can’t remember? Well, neither can I. Unless you had a baby, or got a big diamond ring, they all run together, don’t they?

When you do the dollar Christmas, you won’t remember, specifically, what you got in what year. What you will have is memories, like I do now.

We did the dollar Christmas for about FIFTEEN years. It was so popular, once we got started, we never stopped, until all of us cousins had babies. Then, we started to buy for the kids. David and Doug went to the service, so we lost two players. But, each of girls got a fiancé/husband, who was then pulled into our crazy. It was always a blast to initiate the newcomer!

This year, I had a little bit of a warped Christmas. I bought a home in Franklin, expected to close by the end of November, and didn’t close until December 21st. I lived in a hotel room for close to 45 days, and didn’t have squat for my kids. It was during this time that I relived the dollar Christmas, and wished that my children had had the experience. In the long run, they would be better off for it. Memories of full days of laughter, planning gifts instead of throwing away money, opening gifts that were specifically for them, not the newest, bestest, most expensive whatever. Gifts that meant somebody listened.

Everybody should have someone that listens. Everybody should get gifts that are meaningful to them. More importantly, everybody should buy gifts for people that they love (not that they are obligated to), and should make sure that those gifts relate to the person they are buying for.

Right now, I can’t remember what I got for Christmas in 2012. Clothes? Books? Bath and Body shower gel? I don’t know. But, those memories from 1983….still right here, in my heart, in my head….making me write this post.

Dollar Christmas = memories. $2000 Christmas = debt, regret, and maybe a little heartache that nobody took the time to remember the important stuff.

While our family no longer does the dollar Christmas deal, at times the ghost of the tradition reappears. Last July my mother gave my significant other his birthday gift, which was an entire gift bag of snack foods. I told her a week later that the Harry and David Hoot ‘n Holler Snack Mix was the bomb (if you like spicy and crunchy, oh my!) I told her that as far as I was concerned, she could just get me a case of that for Christmas, and be done! And then I proceeded to forget all about it. Until I opened a box on Christmas day that had TWELVE packages of that snack mix in it. A case! See, she listened. Now, every time I open the snack cupboard, I snort with laughter, because the top shelf is piled with snack mix.

Hoping your Holiday Season was filled with joy, and laughter, as mine was.


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