It’s a new year, and I kicked off piano lessons with my Tuesday evening students today. I asked them how their holidays went; I got the usual responses (“Great!”). My follow-up question was, Did you give any great gifts this year?

I like that question, even more than the What did Santa bring you? or What did you get? It comes from my kids, I think, and from our own experiences year after year.

Discovering this unique joy at Christmastime has been one of the most fulfilling, worthwhile surprises of my experience as a parent. Because my kids are many (five, with two spouses and one significant other), and because most of them are young and on tight budgets (i.e. BROKE), holiday gift exchanges often require a great deal of creativity. And because my kids are all creative in some way, they come up with some exceptional gifts for one another.

And for me.

The current life stage of every one of my kids is unique. Lots of limbo, changes, and transitions; the two oldest will move to new cities this coming year. The third is in the process of shaping a new life on the west coast. My eldest son is reexamining everything in a search for what direction he might head in the near future; my youngest is preparing to finish high school in another 18 months and contemplating higher education. And even as they look forward to the future, we all arrived at the Christmas holiday with a few bumps and bruises. It’s been a hard year in many ways.

But Christmas arrived, and the gifts were piled underneath the tree as everyone came home. On the 25th, after multiple cups of coffee and the arrival of The Grandparents, the gift exchange began.

We have a process, and we always follow it: The youngest goes first, giving out gifts one by one; those gifts are then opened, one by one (except for special circumstances), in order from youngest to oldest. So David hands out his gifts first, and then his siblings open them in birth order – one at a time. Daniel is next, and so on. The entire family operates this way; if you’re a guest here at Christmastime, we ask your age so that you fit into the order properly.

This year was extraordinary, and at the risk of sounding boastful, I’m going to highlight the gifts that I received from my children, because each of them moved me in a unique way that I’ll long remember. However, in case I don’t – remember, that is – here are pictures and stories.

David went first, as usual. When he got to Sydni in the opening order, he gave instructions: Syd and Mom open together. So we did, and a thin cardboard cover parted to reveal a map of the United States, dissected, with each state marked with delicate watercolor. Two states were identified; Syd was given the East Coast, with Virginia alone named among the states My gift was the West Coast, with California highlighted.


This is a boy who somehow senses what it’s like to have half of your mother-heart on the other side of a vast prairie and majestic mountains. He knows, he sees, and he told us so. It cost him time and effort and all the care in the world, and it meant more than I can say.

This is also a boy who sketched – free-hand – a portrait of his grandfather’s favorite artist for his gift.

I think he’s incredibly talented. (That’s also a shot of the back of Syd’s calendar for Moon River Print Co.)

Daniel handed out his gifts and went through the normal sibling order. He also gave Tony a toilet seat (a super high-quality one!), but that’s another story… When it came time for my gift, he sat beside me and handed me a piece of paper. I opened it to read rhyming verse; here’s an excerpt:

I want you to know how much you mean to me

And how you’ve shown me Grace Every Day

No present to put in your hands, there’s no words I could say

Sometimes I don’t know who I should try to be

But with you by my side to make sure my day was alright

I’ll make it through everything, Mom – don’t worry, I’ll be just fine

You’ve done so much for me

Yeah, it’s meant so much to me

I finished reading, silently, and I looked up at him sitting beside me. He had a goofy grin on his face and I had tears in my eyes. He was holding out his forearm, which was wrapped tightly in tissue paper. Unwrap this, Mom. So I did, and I found the words that have been the heartbeat of my collection of words and stories and moments as I’ve tried to make sense of this life in the past eleven years; the words that have come to define how I hope to live each moment. grace every day, in my handwriting, tattooed on his arm.


That’s a forever thing, and I am not sure what I think about tattoos, but I am sure of how my son spoke to me with this gift, and I was profoundly moved. I still am; my heart cannot quite hold all the love and hope I feel for him as he works through this season of his life – but I can say that he must know for sure that I am for him, and that is a great and sacred thing.


Sydni had mentioned that she was breaking with tradition and doing something new this year, and so as she handed out cards to every family member, I knew she was excited – and a little nervous. We all opened simultaneously, and each of us found a unique quote, done in her tasteful, exquisite style – a beautiful font, gorgeous names on the packing. We opened and oohed and aaahhed, and then she explained. I took all the money I would have spent on gifts for everyone and made a donation to Save the Children. Your gifts combine together to completely fund a medical clinic. We were all collectively so proud of her – and so touched by her generosity. It was different; and incredibly beautiful.

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Shannon had asked if I ever wanted an actual book of photos from her wedding some months ago, and so I wasn’t completely surprised by what I found when I opened her gift. However, I was completely taken aback when I actually took the time to thumb through the pages. So much had happened that day, and I had never been able to sort through the thousands of pictures. Even two years later, the gift of remembering the joy and excitement of our first backyard wedding was an absolutely perfect gift.


Sarah is known for always spending way too much money on incredibly awesome and expensive gifts for everyone; but this year, she dialed everything back a notch, and for that alone, I was so excited and thrilled and happy. Seeing your kids grow up and learn restraint – well, there’s not a better gift than that. She gave me a box of very cool pampering, self-care things, and within each little sample was evidence that she sees me and she knows me, and that she cares. My girls know I’m not much in the make up and facial department; they share with me and care for me and it is an expression of love.


There were other gifts given and received, and I’m grateful for each of them. But I looked at the bounty in my corner after the chaos ended and realized the way my children demonstrate the width and depth of the blessings of God through their generosity. My kids have become men and women who value others; and they know how to express that value in a way that matters. I couldn’t be more grateful, more honored, more in awe of grace.

And I can’t wait til next year.



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  1. Wow – very cool! I love how the whole set up for gift giving is geared more towards something meaningful, rather than something glitzy, if that makes sense. Each person is on stage, not in a competitive way, but to express what the gift means and what the receiver means to them. What a great experience!


  2. You have every right to be proud, as they do of you. You’ve done a fantastic job.

    BTW, that poem got me all teary. What a gift!


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