bannon_carolMost families have fallback plans for surviving the often-chaotic days and excessive spending of December.  In mine, it is shopping for the perfect "one size fits all, end of the aisle" family Christmas gift.  We all  count on this particular activity to provide comedic relief from the holiday stress.

Born out of need, and a desire to prove a point, the concept of these gifts began over twenty one years ago.  I was pregnant with my fourth child, exhausted, and extremely ornery.  Christmas was one week away, money was short, and I still needed to find something for my siblings – no mean feat with three brothers and two sisters.  Tired of my tears and martyred demeanor, my husband announced with authority he would take on the responsibility of choosing their presents if I promised not to recriminate him, or exchange, the gifts he chose.

My promise was given gleefully.  Now he would finally understand why his wife wasn’t exhibiting holiday spirit! Christmas doesn’t just magically appear one day in December.   It occurs due to hard work, careful planning, and budgeting.  Presents need to be kept within spending limits, but choosing the perfect gift involves recalling the personal likes and dislikes of each family member.  One of my sisters loves the scent of lavender but sneezes every time she smells vanilla; the other sister despises frilly fancy clothes and prefers flannel shirts and fuzzy slippers. True Christmas gifts are specifically bought for each and every loved one.

Hugging him tightly and thanking him profusely, I sent him out the door with the Christmas cash I had budgeted in hand and specific suggestions for each one of my siblings.  I knew in my heart my husband would not return for many hours. I was prepared to listen with a sympathetic ear to his frustration with both the crowds and the costs, knowing that after this shopping trip he would return a better man.

It turned out my preparations, and hopes, were in vain.  One hour later he walked in our side door whistling Jingle Bells.  Holding one paper bag in his arms, he smugly stated that Christmas shopping was a breeze and assured me everyone would love their presents.  Dropping a quick kiss on my forehead, and refusing me a peek inside the bag, he even proceeded upstairs to wrap them. I would have to wait until Christmas just like everyone else.

Gathered around my parent’s tree that year, our children proudly passed out our presents to their aunts and uncles. The moment of reckoning was at hand and I was already making excuses for possible wrong sizes, colors, and offering to exchange any present if they didn’t like it. We have a tradition of watching one person at a time as they open their gifts, and before my husband could suggest opening our presents to them at the same time, my then 19-year-old brother ripped open his gift…upside down.  Out fell a two-pocket cloth work apron stuffed with a carpenter’s pencil and 50’ tape measure.  Kindly thanking us, another brother opened his present and out fell the exact same items.  That is when the mystery of the one-paper-bag-shopping trip began to be revealed.

My younger sister proceeded to open her gift, and someone yelled out " bet you can’t guess what your gift is", and amid the laughter and good natured teasing, sure enough - out came a two-pocket cloth apron, carpenter’s pencil, and a 50’ tape measure. My oldest brother began laughing so hard he could barely ask if our local Home Building Center had any aprons left in their open end-of-the-aisle container storage bins.  By the time my last sibling went to open her gift there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  We were all bent over, holding our stomachs; loud raucous uninhibited laughter filled the room. Our family Christmas "bin" gift had been born.

Throughout the next eleven months my family had no qualms teasing us about their Christmas gift. At Easter, one brother filled his two-pocket cloth apron with chocolate eggs and re-gifted it to my husband in an Easter basket.  During our summer vacation at my parent’s beach home another brother tied his apron over his bathing suit and used it to recycle bottle caps. Even my sisters teased us by using their Home Building Center aprons while cooking, measuring spoons and hot pads filling the pockets.

Over Thanksgiving dinner the following year, the men in my family decided to create the Annual End-of-the-Aisle-Container-Bin-Gift Shopping Contest.  The rules of engagement were simple.  No more than $10.00 could be spent on each person, less was best of course, and the gift had to be something every member could use.  Most importantly, based on past experience, when it was time to open the gifts everyone had to open them up at the same time.

Over the last eighteen years our family Christmas gifts have ranged from the hilarious to the sentimental.  One year a brother made six trips to Home Depot because they were giving away free fluorescent garage lights.   Another time everyone received a bottle of chipolte sauce and a package of cream cheese.  Homemade brownie mixes, cleaning products, needlepoint wine bags and plastic cheese holders are just a few of the many wonderful gifts we have received from each other.

Even though some families have relocated to other parts of the country, and we are all older, the one-size-fits-all container bin gift still continues to lighten our holiday load. Phone calls begin in early December as we tease one another about winning this years "Bin Gift of the Year Award".  Conference calls are now the norm on Christmas morning for those in different time zones as we laugh and share with each other where we found that special gift, how to use the gift, and even why in the world we thought they all needed  this gift.

Simple and easy, long on laughter and short on cost – these are our true gifts to each other. They have never been indexed for inflation because our goal has always been to emphasize the fun of gift giving.  Our children, most of whom are now adults, have become active participants in our family gift shopping experience as well. They have seen firsthand how this family tradition has kept all six of us close to one another.

My husband was right twenty one years ago and his insight is even more important today.  Christmas shopping doesn’t have to fray nerves, cause stomach upset, bloat credit cards, and empty wallets. It can be accomplished with true holiday spirit while whistling Jingle Bells and shopping at your favorite store.  He taught everyone that simplicity, laughter, and staying in touch with each other is truly the best Christmas present anyone can receive.

Copyright 2009 Carol S. Bannon