27 cents: The humble price of Christmas memories

It wasn’t a tradition at all, not at first. The 27-cent gift exchange was this nutty, last-minute thing. It was cooked up by my mother. A formidable lady, she had never before swayed from our Christmas customs.

What she did was shake up Christmas Eve. In our first year without my grandmother, it kept us around the table. It filled the hours between dinner and a late-night church service. It made us laugh.

For Christmas Eve 1968, my mom gave us a new assignment. A few days earlier, we each drew a family member’s name. We had to buy that person a gift that cost 27 cents — to the penny.

The 27-cent gifts were to be opened after Christmas Eve dinner. Documentation was required — we had to show receipts, but could add penny candy or gum to hit it exactly.

I was a freshman in high school. My moods were the typical adolescent whipsaw: teen angst one day, wistful nostalgia for childhood the next. My sister was three years older, my brother two years younger. My dad was juggling a career, Air National Guard duty and family responsibilities. He was, and still is, a reluctant Christmas shopper.

Yet none of us dared object to my mom’s 27-cent plan. We were all grieving in our own ways for my mom’s delightful mother.

We called her “Nan.”

My grandmother was a dynamo. She hosted elegant garden club luncheons, rode horses, got out of speeding tickets, and took solo fishing trips to Montana. She was just shy of her 70th birthday when she died of a stroke in April 1968, the same week Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

My mom, an only child, was extremely close to her widowed mother. Nan lived a few blocks from us on Spokane’s South Hill. We spent every Christmas Eve at Nan’s cozy house. Even to a teenager, everything there seemed magic.

She was an extraordinary cook and gardener. She grew raspberries to make her own jam, and rhubarb and gooseberries for pies. She made her own ice cream with a hand crank.

At Christmastime, her house sparkled. There was a sense of stepping into the past, to a world lovelier than ours.

The ornaments on Nan’s tree were pink. On Christmas Eve, she put out fancy dishes of homemade candies — fudge, divinity and her secret-recipe almond roca. Her living room was candle-lit, with Nat King Cole carols on the record player.

Born in 1898, Nan is buried in the tiny Sherman Cemetery. It’s in the wheat country of Eastern Washington’s Lincoln County, near her girlhood home.

The year Nan died, December came like always. It didn’t matter that none of us wanted to celebrate without her.

So there we were on Christmas Eve ‘68, with the tree decorated in our own perfectly nice but not magical house. My mom prepared a beautiful dinner. After dinner, we each sneaked off to our 27-cent gift hiding places.

Back around the table, we took our time revealing whose names we had drawn. I had my dad. I got him a small bag of walnuts in their shells — weighed at the grocery store, to come in under budget. Gift-wrapped gum made up the difference.

Today, those years are a blur. We started a new habit of setting the Christmas Eve gift amount at the Thanksgiving table. It was always an oddball sum — 34 cents or 47 cents, but never as much as a dollar.

Every year, my dad complained. It was too hard and too time-consuming, he’d say, to find that under-a-dollar gift. We still exchanged real presents — books, sweaters, jewelry, slippers — on Christmas morning.

But year after year, my father brought ingenious Christmas Eve offerings to the table. He’d give us little sacks of nails from the hardware store. If you were lucky, somebody would make it to a dime-store toy department.

We haven’t exchanged presents worth pennies in years. Christmas plans changed. Grandchildren came along. Recently, our big get-togethers have been in the summer, or for family weddings. At 90 and 91, my parents live in the same home where we opened those first 27-cent gifts.

Sometimes Christmas is just hard. Christmas 1968 must have been the hardest one for my mom. Wise and creative, she chased away sadness with 27 cents.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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