Second-hand Santa

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I love my family’s holiday traditions. What I love most about them is that they aren’t exactly like anyone else’s. When my husband and I started our family, and especially after we moved away with the military, we found ourselves forging new traditions. It wasn’t that we deliberately set out to do things differently than our parents had, but our circumstances—location, resources, interests, and so on—were different than theirs, so adapting the way we celebrated holidays was only natural.

First of all, we decided that on Christmas morning when it was time to open gifts, we’d take turns, going around in a circle, with each person opening one gift at a time—even the little stocking stuffers—so everyone would see every gift as it was opened.  We’ve never gone overboard with mountains of gifts, but because we take our time, it takes us hours to open everything. We take breaks to drink coffee, eat cookies, take photos and make a memorable morning of it. And because we don’t eat our big Christmas meal until evening, we don’t have to cut the gift-giving short to get dinner into the oven.

One of the things my family likes best about our Christmas morning gift-giving is something that came about almost by accident. It all started about twenty years ago. During the summer and fall of that year, I kept finding things at thrift stores and yard sales that I knew my husband and my girls would really like. The items I found were special enough to be Christmas gifts, but as I considered wrapping them and putting them under the tree, I knew I needed to set them apart somehow. I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to pass them off as new, when they obviously weren’t, so I decided to wrap them in funnies from the Sunday paper.

I don’t remember what those first gifts were, but I do remember that my husband and my girls got such a kick out of them (both the gifts and the concept), that second-hand gifts have been a part of our family Christmases ever since.

As we hammered out the details of this tradition over its first few years, we agreed that in addition to thrift store finds, the gifts could be something the giver already owned—perhaps something the receiver had admired. For instance: the Balmoral Rain perfume my daughter Alexis used to wear. I complimented her on it often enough that when Christmas came, she gifted the half-full bottle to me, and now it’s the only perfume I ever wear. Or it could be something found—like the elegant, burn-out velvet scarf my daughter Alison found on the sidewalk in Center City; she hand-washed it, wrapped it in funnies, and now it’s mine!

The internet has added another dimension to the second-hand gift tradition: it makes it possible to replace special things from the past. I once mentioned to Alexis that I’d love to have an old children’s book, called Sugarplum. It was my favorite book when I was little; I took it out of the school library again and again and never wanted to give it back. It has long been out of print, but Alexis—who loves searching for elusive things—found me a well-loved copy from some other elementary school’s library. As I peeled back the comic strip paper and saw what was inside, I burst into tears. For me, Christmas mornings just don’t get any better than that.

As time went on, my family added another amendment to our tradition . . .

One year as I was browsing the clearance racks at a department store (the clearance section is my most favorite place in any store!), I found a beautiful wooI sweater, in my husband’s very hard to find size (extra-large, extra-tall), in just the right shade of blue to set off his eyes. It was originally marked $80, but had been marked down so many times that by the time I found it, it was only $5.00! And it wasn’t beat-up the way clearance sweaters usually are (I think someone must’ve bought it, kept it in the bag for a very long time, then returned it). I got such a thrill out of my score that I asked my family if they’d mind adding “Extreme Bargain” to the parameters of our second-hand gift tradition. It is a total bending of the rules, but in the spirit of Christmas, they agreed.

I love this tradition—for a number of reasons.  

For one thing, I feel as though I’m on a constant treasure hunt because I never know when that right something will turn up.  Whether I’m at a thrift store, a church bazaar, or I’m peeking into the tops of trash cans in swanky neighborhoods (yes, I admit it), I’m always thinking of my family . . . looking for that something that will make them smile . . . and I know they’re looking for things for me also.  

And I love the fact that even when the budget is tight (for one of us or all of us), we still have a fun and creative way to give gifts to one another.

I may not know what your family’s traditions are . . . but I know you have a few.

I think having traditions—especially unusual ones—gives a family a sense of identity; and I believe having a sense of identity makes a family stronger.

I hope in these next few hectic weeks, in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of preparing for the holidays, you’ll take a few minutes to stop and really think about the traditions you’re keeping.

Are there ways to strengthen the ones you and your family value the most?

Are there others that you’ve held onto because you thought you had to?

Continuing traditions that you don’t really enjoy is stressful; maybe it’s time to let those go and focus on the ones that really matter.

Photo by Kathryn Lerro

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