My parents were experts at saving money. Not having much of something does that to you. Their frugality was so skilled that, growing up, I didn’t realize how limited their income was. Dad’s earnings as a TV repairman stretched to support a family of nine.
But I never knew a Christmas that felt unfulfilled. Christmas was a kind of “bring it on” challenge to my parents, prompting them to creatively make the most of the little they had. Mom helped us write reasonable letters to Santa, and somehow the wished-for bike or skates or little tea set was under the tree Christmas morning, along with examples of their clever industry.
Their supreme thriftiness led them to also help fulfill Christmas wishes for others beyond our family. Mom sewed kids’ clothes — but not all of them ended up under our tree. I realized this when I noticed neighbor kids wearing outfits made of fabric I saw in her sewing room.
Mom also knitted Barbie clothes — something I still find astonishing considering how tiny they were. I cherished a knitted full-length Barbie coat Mom gave me one Christmas. All four of her daughters received one of those coats. One day I was astonished to see a friend’s Barbie dressed in a twin to my coat. Mom produced coats for neighborhood Barbies as well.
Mom also crafted clever homemade gifts. My favorite was the year she used old bleach bottles to create piggy banks. They sound primitive now, but those squatty bottles with cork legs, a spout snout, googly eyes, and a twisted pipe cleaner for a tail delighted each of her kids who received one. She’d managed to make something useful of all the bleach bottles collected from doing mountains of our laundry. Even better, I spotted one of her piggy bank creations at a friend’s house. I said nothing about it then, but later asked Mom about it. She just smiled and said not to worry about it — her way of brushing off questions she didn’t want to answer.
Mom also kept extra mittens on hand. She picked up kids from a large family down the street on our way to school despite the fact there was no chance for a reciprocate carpool due to that family owning only one small car which their dad took to work. That family struggled for even the basics. But at least they had gloves and hats and scarves because Mom kept extras in the car. When one of the kids appeared with no coat, she sent them back into the house. But if they were missing a hat, gloves, or scarf, she’d outfit them. Mom couldn’t stand to see a hatless head in the cold of winter — so she did something about it.
At Christmas time, Mom and Dad somehow made sure every kid in that family received a gift. I didn’t know this until as a young teen, I stumbled on a stash of gifts hidden in Dad’s shop. I was surprised to see all the gifts, and assumed they were for our family. But then I noticed names on a few of the tags, and realized the truth. I felt no envy — only a surprised happiness that my parents were so good and generous.
Thinking back on how little money my parents had to work with, I’m grateful I never felt poor — nor rich. I just felt content that we had enough. Considering their generosity, I understand why. Not only were they masters at stretching a dollar, they also understood that the more they gave away, the richer we all became.
We hear a lot about saving money at Christmas time. Black Friday sales and Cyber Monday sales and all those other holiday sales have one thing in common: the saving. They promise to save us money, and time, and worry. Every page in the volumes of ads that land on our porch and in our mailbox and on our computer screens promise the same thing: saving.
We are indeed, focused on saving. But for what purpose? My parents saved money — so they could give it away. They understood that Christmas saving wasn’t just about saving money.
The story of a Christ child being born is also about saving — but not the Black Friday or Cyber Monday kind. His story is about saving souls, and saving us from each other, and even saving us from our own poor choices.
The best part is, when we practice that kind of Christmas saving, we get to keep our change.