Prayer, Creativity & Faith

An Upside-Down Christmas (part 1)

Since I lost Mom three and a half years ago, Christmas has been decidedly less fun. The best part of Christmas was finding really fun, quirky gifts that only my mom would like—and lots of them. She did the same for me. But now, she’s not on my gift list. My kids are past the age of waiting by the tree with eyes full of wonder, but instead have few needs and fairly expensive wants (I’m not criticizing them; just saying how things have changed). My life—with its work, activities, and responsibilities—has gotten fuller. Busier. I have less time to “do” Christmas and less desire to add Christmas clutter to my décor… because in a few short weeks, I’ll then have to undo all the “cheer.”

But this post isn’t going to be a downer. I’m just saying that because of all of these things, I’m particularly aware that the holidays aren’t always fun. I feel like everyone expects things to go perfectly—over-the-limit credit cards to miraculously get paid off in January, family members to bury the strife they’ve stirred up for years, pounds to drop off once the Christmas fudge is all gone. And, even if you’ve lost someone you love, the hole in your heart should be filled by happy memories and other people you love. If these things happen for you, I’ll be the first to celebrate with you.

But this series of posts is for those who might be feeling stress heading into Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For the next few Fridays, I’m going to try to look at Christmas’s stressors from a different point of view. Backwards. Inside-out. Creatively. And of course, my favorite—upside down. I’m hoping these ideas will inspire you—and remind me—to find the joy in the holidays again.


Well, let’s be honest: the issue is really a lack of it, isn’t it? I love to give gifts, so I tend to buy too much. And I start a few months early, thanks to the equally-marvelous-and-terrible phenomenon of online shopping.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m so tired of hearing how gifts aren’t important. (I know, I’m such a rebel.) I fully understand that material things are not the point. That we don’t need to spend a cent. That we’re throwing money away on things that we don’t need. But here’s the thing: giving gifts is my love language. When well-meaning people (or those who are wisely trying to protect their own over-extended budgets) suggest that we don’t exchange gifts, I feel like I’ve been punched. Truly, I am fine with not getting a thing. But I hate to be robbed of my privilege to give. When I give a gift, it is because I’ve discovered that tangible things help remind people of the love I try to show them all the time. Friends, some of whom live in other states, comment that every time they see the glass bowl I gave them as a wedding gift (or the antique flower salt and pepper shakers or the Jane Austen action figure), they think of me. One friend even said that although her children haven’t met me more than a couple times, they know who I am because they’ve heard the story of a gift I gave their mom. You don’t have to convince me of all the reasons gifts should not be (and are not) the focus of Christmas or remind me what it’s all about. I know, I really do. But the fact remains that gifts are often a part of our celebrations.

So today, as we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and the frenzy of blockbuster sales and extreme shopping, we’re going to talk about some gifts you can give that will cost you very little but be meaningful to give or receive. Some take a little more time than others, but the price tag will be small.

What’s in a name? Spend some time on eBay or etsy or Google searching for the names of people on your list. One year I gave Mom a framed matchbook from Hotel O’Dell, an old hotel with my parents’ last name, and a memoir called Miss O’Dell. I found antique sheet music for a song with my daughter Katie’s first name in the title. I found a beer label with a drawing of the Stanley Hotel, the hotel from The Shining (written by my husband’s favorite author, Stephen King), and framed it for my husband. These things fit in inexpensive, standard-size frames, but they showed thought. You can also order (through a site like etsy) customized pendants with a person’s name or a favorite phrase stamped into the metal.

Pick a theme. It can be simple or complex. Is her favorite color lime green? Then buy a few assorted items—pens, a notebook, nail polish, socks—and put them in a lime green gift bag. One year my friend Marcia gave me a bag of gifts with a card that said, “Because you’re bigger than life.” It contained an oversize candy bar, giant highlighter, super-size bottle of wine, and so on. I just put together an inexpensive correspondence kit for Marcia’s 7-year-old daughter with a bunch of items found on clearance—notecards and pens, some 47¢ greeting cards from Walmart, a small address book, stickers, and a sheet of stamps in a plastic box. Maybe you could choose a favorite recipe, copy it onto a pretty card, and include it with one or two ingredients (a gourmet bottle of olive oil or vanilla extract, a fancy bag of pasta, or pretty cupcake liners and sprinkles—easily found at places like World Market and HomeGoods). Perhaps you give away a movie night—a $5 CD from a clearance bin somewhere, some microwave popcorn, an oversized box of candy and a couple bottles of pop.

Do the shuffle. Come up with some kind of exchange—make a game of it—and instead of buying gifts for everyone at a specific gathering, have each person bring one thing. A $10 gift card to their favorite restaurant or clothing store. A favorite book (new or used). A favorite movie (dig through the $5 bins at the big department stores). Or do the “white elephant” game and try to come up with the funniest, most outrageous gifts. You may use something you already own or spend months scouring yard sales and Goodwill looking for just the right thing. Let the exchange be fun and allow yourselves to spend time enjoying it, so it’s not focused on the actual gift itself but the experience and laughter around it.

Know any authors? Ask them to sign books to the person getting the gift. Plan ahead, and try to attend author fairs and library events throughout the year where people will be signing the books they wrote.

Give the gift of you. Make something, even if you’re not particularly crafty—homemade candy, loaves of bread, or coupon books of chores. Or spend some time on Pinterest looking for ideas. (Don’t be disappointed if the finished product doesn’t look as good as the pictures. Just have fun making it.) Order reprints of favorite photos and put them into a small album. You could even write a short letter telling that person what they mean to you. Or use a paint pen to write your favorite scripture around a Christmas ornament. Alternatively, shop in local, independent stores, markets and craft fairs and buy unusual or hand-crafted products.

You’ve been framed. Print 5×7” or 8×10” copies of pretty photos you took on a recent vacation or hike through the woods, put them in inexpensive frames, and give those as gifts. Copy your favorite poem or Bible verse onto a pretty sheet of paper and draw little flourishes around it. Or dig through boxes of old photos until you find a photo of the two of you together and have a copy made. Go to the local antique store and look through boxes of old postcards. Select one with a sweet sentiment or old-fashioned illustration of a town or landmark that your friend likes.

Write a prayer or gratitude journal for your friend or relative. One year, I wanted to give my friend Peggy something meaningful. She believes strongly in the power of prayer—as do I—but saying “I prayed for you” feels rather vague and abstract. So I got a small journal and spent one month before Christmas recording my prayers for her. Each day I had a different focus—each of her kids, her husband, ministry, work, relationships, finances, faith. At the end of the month, she was moved by the gift and loved reading through it. It represented, in a tangible way, the prayers I said for her.


I could go on and on. I love this kind of thing. But I’ll stop before this becomes the world’s longest post. (It may already be too late.)

Next week, I’ll be talking about holidays colored by loss or overshadowed by grief and suggesting some ways to meaningfully remember or honor someone you’re missing. In subsequent weeks, we’ll discuss time (finding it, filling it, prioritizing it) and ways to infuse spiritual meaning when it often gets obscured by everything else. If you have suggestions for additional topics or ideas you’d like me to include, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments or email kellyostanley-at-me-dot-com.

In the meantime, enjoy your turkey and pumpkin pie, or whatever your particular Thanksgiving tradition is. And know that I’m thankful for you—for all the ways you encourage me, and for the fact that you actually want to read my rambling writings :-).

2 Responses to “An Upside-Down Christmas (part 1)”

  1. mike mccarty says:

    Awesome post. Can’t wait to read what you have for us next Friday!!

  2. toni says:

    Kelly — gift giving is one of my special talents and joys also. I think it is fun and not a chore. I don’t actually like getting folks something from their wish list. I’m a little selfish in wanting to express myself in their gift.

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