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By the author of The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Living and What to Eat When You’re Broke
When my kids were younger, I didn’t really do the Santa Claus thing. Money was so tight that there was no way I was giving that dude in the red suit any of the credit for the gifts under the tree. We generally did a small exchange, and I always gave them a budget for selecting things for their wishlists, as I explained in this article about managing holiday expectations.
But then I found out that there really was a Santa.
One year was particularly fraught with financial difficulty. I’d recently bought a house, and money was even tighter than usual what with intermittent layoffs at work. It was the same year I’d been in a custody battle, so you can imagine the expenses that had piled up with a legal case. The local women’s shelter had contributed some legal assistance to my case, so they knew our circumstances were rather dire.
It was about a week before Christmas when the doorbell rang. My daughters were about 6 and 11 this year, and the gifts under the tree were sparse.
I opened the door, and there were two people from the women’s shelter wearing elf hats. They handed me a big black trash bag of wrapped gifts with each of the girls’ names on them. There were even some gifts for me and a hundred-dollar gift card to a local grocery store. I hadn’t expected to get a single thing that year aside from some sticky popsicle-stick-and-glitter crafts, and I sat down on my bottom step and sobbed while my girls danced around, ecstatic at the early delivery. To this day, incidentally, I still have a pretty little tchotchke that I received as a gift from a stranger.
That was the first year I really understood “Santa.” And I was determined that my daughters would understand it, too.
Giving had always been part of my frugality strategy.
Even when times were hard, each visit to the grocery store included giving as well as getting. Each of my daughters got to choose one thing – either a box of pasta or a can of marinara sauce. Together, I told them, those two things will make a hot meal for somebody who really needs it. I wanted them to understand how much they were helping. My daughters took exquisite care to choose, in their eyes, the perfect $1 can of pasta sauce, whether it was basil and chunky tomato or garlic and oregano. Then they contemplated whether ziti, spaghetti, or fusilli would complement the chosen sauce the best. After I paid for it, they carefully placed their offerings into the food bank bin at the exit of the store.
After we were given so many gifts during such a difficult time, the next year, I reminded the girls of what had happened with the gifts we’d been given. As we were making our budget, I asked them how much we should put aside for being Santa. We decided on $20. But then, I was completely taken by surprise when they came back to me later, after a heart-to-heart discussion with one another, and asked me to take $20 from each of their own budgets to add to the Santa budget.
Initially, I’d planned on just picking one item off the Angel Tree at the school and using $20 to purchase it. But with a budget of $60, I knew that we could do far more.
We went to the person managing the school giving tree and asked if there were two children in the same family. We were given two girls to buy for. We took our $60 and purchased the two modest items that the children had asked for, and then we took the rest of the money to fill stockings for these girls. We got things at Walmart, and the dollar store, and we filled two stockings right to the brim with candy, hair accessories, lip balm, and jelly bracelets.
My daughters were as excited about choosing things for these girls they didn’t know as they would’ve been about getting the items for themselves. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’ll never forget how carefully they shopped and how seriously they put their heads together and discussed each choice.
I explained that even if they saw the girls at their school wearing the items we had selected, they must never let on like they were the ones who had given the gifts. First of all, it’s not Santa-like if people know. Secondly, I reinforced to them that sometimes people are embarrassed when they need a hand, and we wanted people to feel good, not bad.
And this was just the beginning of our double life as Santa.
Things got better for our family financially, as they do. I had a good job at a service department. We had a nice place to live, a reliable car, full tummies, and warm clothes.
When I was put in charge of the department Christmas party at work, including the secret Santa exchange, I knew that I had an opportunity to REALLY make a difference. I called a quick meeting over a pizza lunch and asked the guys: do you want to do a gift exchange of stuff you probably don’t really want, or…what about adopting a local family in need?
Much to my delight, the guys I worked with were in for about $20 each. I contacted the proper agency, got matched with a family, and brought in the family’s wishlist along with a list of family member’s sizes and ages. I tacked it to the wall in the breakroom and asked the guys to mark off what they were going to get and bring it in by a designated date.
Several of them went out and went crazy. One guy bought each kid a snowsuit in the appropriate size. Another guy’s wife bought giant teddy bears for each child. I brought in gifts for the parents because I remembered how much it had meant to me to receive a pretty little gift.
But as the deadline drew near, a lot of gifts remained to be bought. We had another meeting and decided to put out a jar for the people who had not yet bought gifts to put some money into. I gave them a deadline so that my daughters and I would have time to go out and buy the rest of the presents.
Then we went shopping.
While we’d only agreed to spend $20 each in our meeting, the men I worked with put in far more. The jar was overflowing by the deadline time and we had hundreds of dollars to spend Christmas shopping for this family we had never met.
I explained our mission to my daughters and each of them donated some of their own holiday gift budget again, without hesitation. We set off early on Saturday morning, cash in hand, to create the Christmas of this family’s dreams. We bought every item on the list: gift wrap, tape, and scissors. We still had money left so we got cozy gloves for each family member, including mom and dad. We had budgeted $100 for a grocery gift card but had quite a bit left. Thinking back to times when I’d been broke, I split the remaining money up into multiple $50 gift cards so that they could divide their purchases over weeks to come. I added some canned and boxed goods from my own home pantry.
We brought everything into the house and checked off the list to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. Then, we carefully boxed it up (everything had to be unwrapped), and we wrote out a Christmas card for the family. Each of my daughters added a little note wishing them a wonderful holiday.
On Monday, I was going to work late so I could deliver the boxes to the office responsible for handing out the gifts. The girls were so excited that I called the school to let them know my daughters would be late that day. They came with me to drop off the presents, and it was an incredibly gratifying experience to watch how happy they were to be giving, not getting.
May your children be givers.
I think that these experiences combined to create givers – my daughters have always been incredibly generous. And we’ve always, every year, made purchases for people who might otherwise go without gifts. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to do this together. Sometimes, we do it separately due to geography. But giving is a family tradition that I cherish, whether we are near or far. We have benefitted from the kindness and generosity of others, and we’ll never forget it.
May you have a beautiful holiday season filled with love, generosity, and kindness.
What about you?
Have you ever been the recipient of a generous holiday surprise? Have you ever been the one giving the surprise? Please share your stories in the comments section.
Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, adventure-seeking, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites. 1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty; 2) The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived; and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. Her work is widely republished across alternative media and she has appeared in many interviews.
Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books, 12 self-published books, and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses at SelfRelianceand Survival.com You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.