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The Christmas we had no money was the best Christmas of all

The Christmas of 1968, my mother gathered the seven of us kids into the front hallway and announced her plan with the enthusiasm usually reserved for a trip to the beach.

“This year,” she said, “we’ll look for things around the house to give to one another! And we can even wrap the things up in last year’s wrapping paper!”

“What if there isn’t enough paper?” one of us said.

My mother met the doubter’s question with a smile — having expected opposition, she likely knew she’d already won the battle if the question was about the packaging instead of the goods. “Then we’ll use the Sunday funnies!” she said. “It’ll be so much fun. And everyone will get a surprise!” 

Then Mom set the rules: We couldn’t steal things from one to give to another, couldn’t give someone something he or she already owned, couldn’t choose something the other sibling would hate. We could reuse, remake, repurpose, redesign.

“And we don’t have to go to any stores!” 

In fact, we couldn’t go to any stores. Money was short always, but that year, it was really short. Groceries too. And with seven children, food was more important to my mom than presents. Santa would come (or so she said; I hoped she was right) but there was no money for a buck here, or five there, to fulfill the need for dozens of sibling presents to one another.

So we each selected the name of a sibling from scraps of paper plucked from our dad’s wool fedora, and we raced around the house on the hunt. Searching for gifts in our own home proved to be surprisingly fun; anything we touched we could look at anew. For the youngest of us, Mom helped supervise the search — down to the basement, up to the attic, into the linen cupboard. For the oldest, she set a higher standard: a mission to take something old and make it new, something broken and make it whole. And an expectation that making a gift was preferred to finding something we’d just forgotten about.

On Christmas Day, we ran downstairs in order of youngest to oldest to check out our Santa presents first. I received a Liddle Kiddles doll, what I most wanted — I could wear her in a decorative bubble that hung from a chain necklace. I loved little things, so the miniature nature of the doll made it even more special. I didn’t notice that it had probably been especially inexpensive.

Santa hadn’t brought very much, so we quickly moved on to the sibling presents. Somehow, this seemed more exciting than the Santa gifts. Buildup always works.

I was 6. I wish I could remember what I found or made that year, or whom I gave it to. But I don’t. I do remember what I received.

My present was the largest. How lucky I’d been when my sister Kathleen — at 15, the oldest of us — had pulled my name. I ripped off the Sunday comics and there it was: a replica of our own house. Remnants of our red flocked wallpaper lined the walls of a large cardboard box. Pieces of our own rugs lined the floors (where had she found them? Had my mother allowed her to cut pieces that were under a couch?). The room I shared with my sisters had beds made of blocks covered with cotton scraps and cotton ball pillows; nearby sat a vanity with a tin foil mirror and an empty thread spool stool. I could even place my Kiddle (who looked like me, with strawberry-blond hair) in her own bed and at her own vanity.

I’ve never again cried with joy the way I did for my own recycled house.

Our youngest brothers David and Mark finally closed out the gift giving with a cigar box of my dad’s that jingled when they shook it. My mother ordered each of us to close our eyes and grab a handful of what was inside. David laughed when we all had a handful — of pennies. We decided to throw our pennies in the air. “Ready, set, go!” our mom called out. And when I think of that Christmas 1968, this is what I remember: our full hands and laughing faces, the clinking of pennies as they rained down on us and a lovely lack of poverty.

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