During my childhood, gifts were typically reserved for Christmas and birthdays. Whenever I spotted an advertisement for some fun new toy, I knew I had two options: Wait for the holidays or use my allowance money. As a tight-fisted child, I typically opted for the former. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’d carefully write out my wishlist, mail it off to Santa, and become a jittery mess waiting for Christmas Day to roll around.
Finally, after a nearly-sleepless Christmas Eve, my sisters and I would wake up in our grandparents’ attic, roll out of bed, and take the stairs two at a time to see what sat under the tree. Christmas morning meant eager hands passing presents back and forth, a flurry of torn wrapping paper, and shouts of appreciation. While I could always count on ripping paper from store-bought gifts, my sisters and I also knew to each expect a small envelope containing a homemade coupon book in my mom’s curly handwriting.
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The coupon book was a family tradition throughout my childhood and each of its pages promised an activity or treat redeemable at anytime throughout the year. One page was good for a trip to a coffee shop for hot chocolate while another offered a surprise outing with one of our parents. This present not only extended Christmas festivities throughout the year, it also allowed my sisters and me to have one-on-one time with our parents.
Aside from a handful of gifts, such as my first bike, I have few memories of the store-bought presents I received over the years. I do, however, have vivid memories of various coupon book adventures. I received my very first coupon book in fifth grade, but it wasn’t until several months later that one of the first coupons was used. My mom told me that we were heading to the grocery store, when, in fact, we were heading to Milwaukee for an overnight trip. The experience felt incredibly exciting—much more so than a brand-new toy.
The coupon book tradition continued throughout high school, when I’d cash in coupons to attend plays with my mom at a nearby outdoor repertory theater. On cold Wisconsin winter days, I’d redeem my hot chocolate coupon for a trip to Victor Allen’s coffee shop, while on hot, humid summer days, I’d flip through pages to find the ice cream one. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the time I reached high school, I’d stopped creating present lists and started looking forward more to the alternative gifts cleverly thought up by my parents and relatives.
My siblings and I have grown older and moved away from home, but our thoughtful tradition continues, albeit in different forms. Shortly before I left for college, my aunts gave me an envelope with a letter promising monthly care packages during my freshman year. The first month, I opened my mailbox to a Target gift card, while the next month held a box of homemade cookies. A few birthdays ago, my sister typed up several of our most memorable childhood adventures into a short book for me. I stumble across it every once in a while and, when I do so, pause with whatever I’m doing to reread about our adventures and giggle at our mishaps. One year, my sisters and I reversed the tradition, instead bestowing coupon books to our parents that included offers such as making dinner and cleaning the house.
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While the coupon book is one of my favorites, I have seen alternative gift-giving take place in many different ways. One friend creates an annual Christmas theme for her family, which includes an evening of songs, games, and stories all centered around the theme. Another has mentioned a Want-Need-Wear-Read tradition that allows her children to make a gift request in each of the four categories. When I was as a volunteer coordinator, I worked with a number of volunteers who made it a tradition to volunteer at my organization’s annual holiday food-and-gift drive.
As one of the world’s worst gift givers, I’ve also found a level of comfort in alternative gift giving. No longer do I scroll through websites and browse stores, stressed with the mission of finding just the perfect present at just the perfect price point. Now in the months and weeks leading up to Christmas, I use the holiday season as an excuse to learn or test out skills, such as cross stitching, knitting, and, a personal favorite, using a router. End results are mixed, but I can always count on my family being appreciative of the time and effort a present took.
My sisters and I still take the stairs two at a time on Christmas Day. We still find a handful of store-bought gifts under the tree each year. However, what I’ve come to treasure most are the traditions of coupon books, homemade gifts, and quality time together that my family has built over the years. Sometimes, family traditions truly are the best gift.