December 2016

Giving Extravagantly

Author: Kitty Bartell

During this season of giving, rest assured it doesn’t make you a bad person if you are hoping to find something special wrapped in a pretty bow under the Christmas tree. No need to feel guilty if the eight nights of Hanukkah stretch before you with the glorious prospect of eight lovely presents awaiting you. Receiving is nearly effortless, requiring little more than a squeal of delight and a thank you, preferably on a cute note card and mailed with a stamp.

The greater challenge is in the giving. Grasping the spirit of giving comes naturally to some and is worse than a tooth extraction for others. Whether your gifting is obligatory, or voluntarily met with joy and creativity, is irrelevant. This season’s gifting mission: make your list, check your resources twice, and give extravagantly.

I learned the lesson of giving extravagantly from my Great Aunt Jane—the kind of extravagant giving that doesn’t require a great deal of money or outrageous surprises. Aunt Jane and her sister Helen (my paternal grandmother) became brides just before the Great Depression, and were having babies and raising families in the post-World War II era. These sisters had enjoyed an affluent upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where their childhood Christmases brimmed with abundance. However, by the late 1940s, time and circumstances had taken their toll on the sisters’ economies.

I like to imagine that, even during the lean years, Santa Claus delivered a gift to each of Jane’s children. However, one Christmas during this age of post-war rationing and unemployment, it was the gift of homemade cookies and candies, accompanied by a special letter written from Jane to Helen, that embodied the spirit of giving extravagantly (see “If Wishes Were Horses”), because giving extravagantly means giving the most that you can from what you have, and delivering it straight from the heart. What Jane had to give that year was butter, sugar, eggs, and memories, wishes, and words.

In the end, the timeworn letter the family has since titled “If Wishes Were Horses” wasn’t among Jane’s belongings; it was found among Helen’s. It was Helen to whom it meant the most, and I imagine she read it often, because it reminded her of how Jane had given the most she had to give that year. While it wasn’t a gift to be draped over her shoulders for warmth, or a bracelet to dangle from her wrist, or a new book to read, it was merely ink on a simple piece of stationery; and it was a truly extravagant gift.

Over time, the gems and trinkets and furnishings collected over the span of Helen’s life were given to her children and grandchildren. And while I am certain that the cookies and candies that Jane made in her impeccably clean kitchen were delicious treats, it was the letter that she kept and had treasured. A price tag does not determine the value of a gift; the spirit in which it was given certainly does.

A woman who likely received few, if any, beautifully wrapped packages under a Christmas tree, gave extravagantly throughout her life; it was Mother Teresa who said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” This year, whether your budget is burgeoning or is nearly non-existent; whether your gifts are purchased from a boutique, gallery, or shop, or are handmade treats, crafts, a simple card, a gift of service, or heartfelt words; be wildly extravagant, and give with your whole heart. 

Writer’s Note: “If wishes were horses and beggars would ride” is the first line from an English nursery rhyme originating in the sixteenth century. Much like our modern “Roses are red, violets are blue,” the first line in the rhyme was often used as a starting point for writing a sentiment or teaching a lesson. Jane Payette Lilley borrowed the first line from the rhyme and completed her Christmas letter to Helen with her own memories, loving messages, and humor.

If Wishes Were Horses

Dear Helen,
If wishes were horses and beggars could ride
I’d wish to be with you this Christmastide.
We’d recall the joys of years gone by
When we were little, you and I.
The “parlor” closed tight so none could see
The treasures it held ’til Christmas Eve;
When the kids were upstairs and the stockings hung,
Then the house came alive and work begun.
The tree was brought in from the out of doors
And trimmed with the “gadgets” of years before.
The little white angels and silver horns
Were admired anew each Christmas morn.
The table was laden with good things to eat,
Stuffed dates, nuts, and rosettes were the treat.
Do you remember the fun when “folks” came to call
And the mistletoe hung from the light in the hall?
And Dad decked the halls with wreaths and holly
Everyone happy and everyone jolly?
I hope that these “treats” recall to your mind
The same sweet memories it does to mine.
While it’s fun to recall, it is best to live
Each sorrow and joy the New Year gives.

Oh, I could wish for a million to buy you things
But there couldn’t be more love than this gift brings.
How I’d like to be with you to drink the “cheer”
Of a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


P.S. Tho’ the things were made in this box
twix the measles and chickenpox,
They’re pure, clean, and good to eat,
My sanitation can’t be beat.

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