25 Days of Presence and Presents

As I was just sorting through my phone photos from the last month and finding all these blurry and random images the kids and I took, I felt a little better about just not ever really getting to so many of the Christmas activities I wanted to do. 

Even though I didn't really photograph it well or completely (or even with my real camera) this is my favorite Christmas project from this year. This is something, in some form, that we'll definitely figure out how to do again.

The idea was simple. The kids and I decided that we'd give someone a gift every day in December leading up to Christmas.

Then we did.

What we did was very random and a little different for each day. We did a lot of baking: cookies of all kinds, brownies, rice crispie treats, banana bread, a few meals for families with moms who had jobs and kids and classes and surely a lot of other things going on during finals week. Some were really small gifts; others more substantial. "Instant movie nights" (a DVD and a few packages of microwave popcorn) were a favorite as were rootbeer floats. We collected a few favorite books and the kids made some stuffed toys, baby blankets, a few little tutus, and a couple of kid-sized aprons. We also gave gift certificates for the handful of local restaurants and coffee shops in town. One afternoon we went around to all our local businesses and got about $30-40 worth of gift certificates from each one. Some days or for some families we combined a few of these different things.

I tried to keep much of our spending local, but our town is so small we did buy a few books, movies, games and fabric for some of the projects in Missoula since none of that is available here. 

How we chose people was random, too. Sometimes kids were excited about a specific person or an idea of something they wanted to make and planned ahead and worked on it for a few days. Other days they'd come home from school and something they saw or heard earlier in the day made them want to do something for someone who they thought could use a reminder someone was thinking about them.  We did big families, young couples, grandparents of some of the kids' friends, and young single people. Some people we knew really well, some we were even related to, and some we only knew a little. Some were fairly close neighbors, some lived a few miles out of town, and we even mailed a couple anonymous packages. The only consistent piece was that we do something nice for someone else every day without expecting anything in return. 

The kids actually initially wanted to stop and tell everyone Merry Christmas each time we delivered something (which is another option we might try next year) but this time around we ended up doing everything anonymously. The kids were on board because they liked the challenge of trying to make it through the whole month without getting caught. I liked the idea of people having no way to feel like they needed to do something in return. We've also had such an awful wave of crime and theft in town lately, I wanted people to have good things to say about what was happening in our community to balance out all the negative, even if just a little.

Lex really wanted to cut the onions for one of the meals we were making. He was really annoyed that it made his eyes burn once I let him. And he also was really annoyed that I kept telling him not to touch his eyes with the onion hands. And then he was annoyed when I suggested he stop cutting the onions. A viscous cycle.
I initially underestimated how much time this would take. (I underestimate the amount of time required for every single thing I do, so this wasn't surprising.) Even on the nights we didn't cook or sew, there was still putting together whatever else we were going to drop off and the driving around and sneakily figuring out how to leave our packages without getting caught by quick door answerers or loud dogs or bright motion lights. We ended up spending at least a half an hour together every day, some times four or five times that. The time it took made it harder to fit it in every day, but also even more worthwhile than I was expecting because we did build giving, and talking about giving, and thinking about how to do nice things for others into every day. (We did miss two days because of our over totally over-scheduled days--which really bothered the kids!-- but then we just did two or three people the next day. A few other days we did extras as well. I think we did about 30 people/ families by the time we finished.)

Convincing Dad to help with the blanket knots. . . too many make your hands tired!
I loved the way it influenced the kids' thoughts and actions throughout the entire month. There were those days when they'd come home with ideas for what they wanted to do. Other days they'd come home ready to come up with plan because it became an important part of their day. They talked all the time about who they want to give things to and what they wanted to give, but very little about what they hoped to get for Christmas themselves.

I realized in the middle of the month that Azia had even started doing a little mini-giving project with her little brother. She was sitting at the table on evening and asked me, "What can I do for Lex's seventh day of Christmas?" I asked her what she meant and she explained that she made him something every day and then wrapped it so he could have a little present every day leading up to Christmas.
Lex fabric shopping (with homemade Captian America shield in hand). He went right to the zebra print and wanted to make something for his sister.
We did spend a few hundred dollars on this which is a pretty big chunk of money for us– more than we often spend on the kids' Christmas presents. This fall right before school started I convinced the kids to get on board with cleaning and clearing out their things and doing a yard sale. They never like to get rid of their stuff, so the deal was they'd get some of the money from the things they sold. I also sold some furniture and baby equipment and computer things and we ended up making much, much  more than I ever expected. We had enough to get each of the kids a new outfit for school with nearly three hundred dollars left. Once we had that unexpected money, we changed the plan of giving the money to the kids and they decided they'd all put in their share and we'd put it away for names off the giving tree once Christmas came around. Each year my kids want to take a name off the tree, but we never really have the money for a very nice gift.

Around Thanksgiving we changed the plan one more time. We did buy one big gift: an American girl doll for a girl we knew wanted one and probably wouldn't otherwise be getting one this year. 

Azia ready to wrap. I used to think these things were ridiculously expensive (which they are) but then my daughter who spends any money she gets immediately and who hates work so much she still has a breakdown every time she needs to clean and who never even played with dolls when she was younger, worked extra jobs for relatives and saved her own money for more than six months to buy one. (She has done nothing like this before or since.) That was two years ago and she still plays with it all the time and is constantly designing clothes for it. The things sure seem to make girls happy.

The rest of the money we used on the gift certificates, so the only real direct increase in normal December expenses was a few games and books and all the meals and baking we did. 

Even though we did spend a lot of money, I think we could do something nearly as cool without spending much at all.  (Though, if I was going to overspend on Christmas, I'm glad this is where we did it.) It was good for my kids to give away things of monetary value. A few times they suggested maybe we could keep a certain movie because they love it and just make that person more cookies instead? Or how about we use that certificate for us for dinner because we never eat out? But as soon as we talked about how cool it was to give those things to some other people who might not have them either, they were even more excited to drop them off.

Zoran and Israel off for some sneaky night operations across the field. Israel did much of the delivery work since he was a bit faster and not opposed to running a quarter mile or so back to the car in some cases. Teenagers sure come in handy.
But even if we had zero money to spend, which could very well be the case next year, I think it would be just as cool to do something as simple as just have all of us leave someone different a note every day telling them something as basic as we're thinking of them and we think they're sort of awesome. That was pretty much the unstated message with each thing we delivered this month, and I think as much as the gifts, people just appreciated that someone was thinking about them. Or maybe we'll do a family challenge that each one of us will do one small act of service for someone else each day.
(There are a lot of us, so with either of these approaches we'd hit a few hundred people over the course of the month!)

Lex trying to make his quick get away. He was upset a few times when the older kids wouldn't let him do some of the treat drops with them (he isn't quite up to their level of either speed or distance). But on one of the last days we had him do the drop off at one of our accomplice's... they let us use their driveway to as a shortcut for some of our early missions so they knew what we were up to. I thought he could just bring it to them and tell them Merry Christmas, but he wanted to be sneaky like the older kids!

All and all, it was a great way to spend more time with the kids really enjoying what the Christmas season should be about. Now we have eleven more months to think of what we'll do next year.

1 comment:

  1. Caroline Lee12/30/11, 8:48 PM

    Love, love, LOVE this in more ways than one :)

    We do something in our neighborhood every year for Halloween. We "Boo" our neighbors. We select two random families and put together a Halloween treat, then do the "sneak" thing; dropping it off on their doorstep, ringing or knocking, and running. The kids are older now, so their dear old mom doesn't have to run anymore (well, mostly).

    Once you've been BOOed, you put the sign up in your window so you won't get BOOed again.

    The "giftees" then have a few days to do the same for two other neighbors. Here is a link for the "Boo" sheets (and maybe a better explanation than mine, since I have a 3 year old trying to climb into my shirt as I type":


    It's really a great way to bring the entire community together, plus it's a lot of fun and everyone gets involved by spreading the joy (and the treats!)