An unexpected gift that keeps on giving for years to come

Was there ever a gift under the tree that you thought was going to be one thing, and it turned out to be something entirely different?

It might have been an item that wasn't even on your Santa list, and when you opened it you were initially disappointed, but you came to appreciate it over time.

Perhaps it was more useful than you ever imagined. Maybe it even became one of your most treasured possessions. Or maybe it was an unexpected event, that provided fond memories for years to come.

Here, newspaper staff members reflect on memorable surprise gifts they've received over the years during the holiday season.

Memories of Mathew

For me, like many others, the Christmas season calls up your typical memories of holiday activities: tree decorating, excessive consumption of chocolate, parents stressing over gift giving, Christmas Day ham, handwritten letters from Santa (aka Dad), and gifts I received and later discarded.

But it also calls up thoughts of a gift I haven’t discarded -- memories of an occasional visitor, my older cousin Mathew, who would visit my family around the holidays.

Mathew was not like my other cousins. He was an accomplished bowler, who routinely pulled off “turkeys;” he could rattle off sports minutiae and heckle opposing sports fans like none other, and he had a fascination with natural disasters, which he could go on at great length about.

He also didn’t like to fly. So, to get to our suburban house in Shoreview from where he lived in Portland, Oregon meant a two-day trip on the Amtrak.

Mathew also happened to have a mental disability. As a teenager, he was my first friend with a disability like this.

Mathew had a charismatic, social personality, and loved to visit his Midwestern relatives around the holidays.

And we were glad to have him -- over the years he’s managed to ingrain many pleasant holiday memories into my brain. Here are a couple:

—One year, his unbridled enthusiasm for bowling led my mother’s entire extended family on a bowling outing in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, a couple days after Christmas. On top of the two hours my brother Andrew and I spent bowling with him, most of my mother’s nine siblings and their kids were gathered at the local bowling alley.

While it was a scene seeing the awkward maneuvers of my relatives as they tried to bowl, their interest barely enduring, Mathew was the enthused star of the show.
He unleashed raw power on the bowling pins, ravaging them. He outscored all of us. His backswing was so powerful, we were afraid to stand even 15 feet behind him for fear the ball might slip out of his hands. And as he released the ball, it made a violent knocking noise as it collided with the wooden lane, hopping a few times before rolling towards its final destination — usually the sweet spot by the center pin. It had me, a mediocre bowler, in awe.

—At midnight Mass at St. Odilia’s Catholic Church in Shoreview, the priest was giving a homily. He happened to use an analogy wherein he compared a religious figure’s success at overcoming a problem to the Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl. To which Mathew responded in a bellow, “Yeah right, like that’ll ever happen!”

He said, to our surprise, what the silent parishioners were thinking.

Though it caught us by surprise, it also led to many laughs from the people in the pews. It lightened up the Mass and woke my family up from our 12:30 a.m., post-dinner stupor. 

Beyond these memories, I just remember Mathew as an upbeat, social guy who was very adept at navigating life, despite the challenges of his disability.

And he had a good life -- he worked in the garden center of a supermarket where many people knew his name. He had an apartment he shared with a good friend, and he passed the time bowling and golfing and spending time with his loving family.

Mathew unfortunately passed away in July 2012, shocking my extended family. He was hit by a car as he crossed the street, and suffered a broken leg, all on his mother’s birthday.

Weeks later, while he was in physical therapy for the leg, he suffered a pulmonary embolism, and was put on life support before passing away a few days later on July 13, 2012.

He is sorely missed by his loving family. He’ll always be on my mind as Christmas approaches for bringing his own unique spin to our family get-togethers. In my opinion, fond memories like the ones he brought us are gifts that far outdo any items that can be bought and wrapped up.

—Patrick Larkin

Appreciating the unexpected

One Christmas many years ago, we had finished opening presents when someone noticed an unopened package tucked far behind where all the other gifts had been under tree. One of my young sons crawled under the tree and dug it out.

The tag read: From Santa.

We were all mystified at first, but I knew there could only be two suspects behind the mystery, and I also knew I wasn’t the gift-giver, so the only possible person was my husband.

Somehow I assumed the present was for me, and my mind instantly raced ahead, imagining the big box was a decoy and deep inside was a smaller box containing either the gold bracelet or ruby pendant I’d been eyeing at a local jewelry store.

As I helped the boys remove the ribbons, I realized the package had more heft than I was expecting; another attempt to throw me off?

When it was opened I was startled to find a DVD player, something that definitely wasn’t on my wish list.

The boys squealed, “Yippee!” My husband was beaming, that is, until he noticed my look of disappointment.

“Oh, a family gift,” I muttered.

It was early in the DVD era and I didn’t realize how quickly the electronics industry was moving away from VHS tapes. But in the coming years, that DVD player provided countless hours of family entertainment and far more joy than any gemstone ever would have.

But my first, unguarded reaction had a lasting consequence. Ever since that Christmas, my husband has shunned anything that could be considered a “family” gift, even when I’ve explained, “Yes, I REALLY do want a new bathroom faucet.”

—Mary Lee Hagert

Joshua Nielsen shown with his prized blanket.

I wanted toys, not textiles

It was initially one of the more unappreciated Christmas gifts I received as a child: a tri-colored, rickrack-pattern afghan my grandmother gave me circa 1987.  I was, after all, a typical boy of around 8 or 9 and wanted toys.  I was too young and naïve to appreciate the time, effort and skill required to crochet that ribbon pattern of orange, green and brown into the wool throw blanket I still have today.

I feigned gratitude upon receiving the gift, and likely hugged Grandma Nielsen politely as I thanked her and went about playing with the Star Wars figures I had just unwrapped with reckless abandon.

The blanket spent a brief period folded at the foot of my bed before spending several years on the backs of armchairs and sofas in my parents’ Hudson, Wisconsin home. 

I was eager to leave the nest upon legally becoming an adult and moved into my first apartment at 18. I gathered up what few possessions I had, including the afghan I had received about a decade earlier.

Over the last 18 years it has traveled with me to several different homes in three different states. While it’s too small to use as a cover at night, I still wear it as a shawl on frosty mornings while sipping coffee and trying to wake up.

It’s warm; it’s comfortable (although not particularly attractive); it’s a keepsake that reminds me of my loving, late grandmother and it’s outlasted all the cheap plastic toys of my youth.

—Joshua Nielsen

No matter the season, the “bribe purse,” as it came to be known, was firmly tucked under Johanna Holub’s arm for three years solid.

The ‘bribe purse’

During my junior year, I studied abroad in Chile for a semester. The college program involved living with a host family; mine was an older Chilean woman I’ll call “Gabby.”

Gabby, I’m sorry to say, was lacking in basic host-mother qualities such as cooking meals and speaking to her host child.

Late in the semester I learned that Gabby was on probation with the student placement organization for being an inadequate host mother to an earlier student and now was desperate to prove to the organization that she should continue to get students, aka income.

So, when Christmas rolled around, Gabby saw an opportunity to butter me up to improve her standing with the placement organization.

After the semester ended, I moved on to personal travel around the area. One day in December I unexpectedly got a call from Gabby on my cell phone.

“Johanna,” she said in Spanish, “I’m at the department store. Do you want a necklace or a purse?”

Flustered, and not quite sure I had totally understood, I asked her to clarify. She didn’t, and simply repeated the question.

“A purse, I guess,” I said, remembering a gaudy bracelet Gabby had given me earlier in the semester. I definitely did not share her style tastes, and I was not eager to own another piece of garish jewelry.

“OK,” she replied. “And I want you to know, I don’t want you to get me anything for Christmas. All I want is a nice card saying how well I took care of you.”

Figuring I couldn’t get out of it and knowing she planned to show it to the placement organization as proof she was a great host mom, I was careful to word the card in a way that didn’t say anything complimentary, but was still polite in a Minnesota-nice way.

“I lived with you and had a good semester,” was all it said (or at least that’s what I intended for it to say; my Spanish skills were always iffy).

A couple days later, we met up, and she handed me a department store bag. I was nervous the contents would be a tacky purse I’d chuck directly into the donation pile upon returning stateside.

But it turned out to be a stylish aqua-blue bag I really liked.

I initially hated the idea of being bribed, but I wore the “bribe purse,” as it came to be known, until the color wore off and the zipper wouldn’t pull any longer.

— Johanna Holub

Mike Munzenrider celebrates Christmas time — aka birthday time -- with his cousin Aran, right, at his house in Missoula, Mont.

I get a little older; the birthday stays the same

My birthday is Dec. 25. I’m nearly three and a third decades old, and at this point can safely say I enjoy my birthday coinciding with Christmas.

When folks find out about this basic historical fact, the reflexive assumption is I’m missing out on something; I’m somehow shortchanged.

I know no better, I counter.

“That’s got to be the pits, still, your birthday on Christmas,” they say, watching their confirmation bias fade away, like so many Christmas trees come spring.

There have been setbacks, yes, enduring my Christmas birthday. That first time around in the early ’80s -- my sister told me this only recently -- I apparently ruined Christmas simply by showing up.

I never had a cupcake party at school, and often, I’m away from friends who’d like to celebrate with me.

Then again, each birthday celebration comes with built-in family time, not to mention a built-in day off. It’s the start of that wonderfully slow week between the holiday and New Year’s.

Once again, it’s all I really know. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism and all those people are right, but I don’t think so.

The only better birthday, actually, might be the Fourth of July. Fireworks and birthday cake at the lake? Imagine that!

And I always circle back to those with the near-miss birthdays -- Dec 23, or worse, July 5 -- as the folks who really suffer, whose friends and family are too distracted or exhausted to really care.

That’s got to be the pits.

-—Mike Munzenrider

Drew Lynard hugs Alfie, an Airedale with a roving eye for tasty treats.

Christmas cookies so bad ...

My assignment was to write about a Christmas gift that I came to treasure over the years. I turned the assignment around and decided to write about the Christmas gift that we sure could have done without.

The holidays bring lots of wonderful memories of course ... but if you scratch just a little deeper, there may be a couple of memories that are not so wonderful.

For my family it would have to be the year of “The Awful Christmas Cookies.”      

Back in the day, co-workers often participated in holiday cookie exchanges. My wife and her colleagues would bake their favorites, arrange them on paper plates -- one for each participant -- and bring them to the office. A co-worker would then go home with a variety of special cookies without having to create them herself.

This particular year the kitchen counter was covered with beautifully decorated cookies from the exchange, and it was a magical sight for our children, who couldn’t decide which ones to eat first.

There were lots of “Wow, these are great!” remarks about the goodies, except for one offering: a dark, forbidding number that no one finished. In fact, lots of them remained on the counter with just a bite taken out.

We had a 75-pound Airedale named Alfie, who also had a sweet tooth and a roving eye for tasty treats that might come his way such as cookies left on the counter for sampling by anyone passing through.

Now, Alfie was tall enough to easily reach the counter and when no one was around, he pulled several paper plates to the floor -- one of which held the dark offenders.

He consumed all of the good stuff -- spritzes, Russian teacakes and bourbon balls -- and later in the night, literally “tossed his cookies.” But, like the humans before him, after one bite, he ignored the awful, dark cookies.

We never learned if there was a mystery ingredient that shouldn’t have been in those cookies, or if something that should have been there, never made it into that batch.

But even a dog that wolfed down nearly everything rejected them.

It’s a story we’ve retold over the years, and always with laughter.

—Denny Lynard

Bows were often used in childhood to tame Kaitlyn Roby’s curls.

Grandpa Larry is sitting next to Kaitlyn Roby’s mom and newborn sister on the Christmas shortly after his cancer diagnosis. He probably passed on his unruly locks to her.

Einstein-esque hair runs in the family

Flipping through photos of Christmases from the early 1990s, it’s not the presents that stick out. It’s my hair.

My brother and sisters have sleek, dark brown hair that dries just right and hardly requires a comb when they roll out of bed. Mine? It’s light brown, wavy and unruly, and usually grows in volume overnight, never looking the same twice.

My parents adore the curlicues that spring up below my temples on a humid day. My mom still finds endearing the ponytails and messy buns I tie atop my head to try to tame my wild waves while I sip my morning coffee.

But I wasn’t always so keen on my ill-behaved tresses.

It took me decades to embrace my natural texture. Through my teen years, I fought it with products, straighteners and curling irons.

And “Kaitlyn’s hair struggle through the years” is well documented. On Christmas mornings past, my parents would crank out something like “Silent Night” on the stereo to wake us kids up from our sibling sleepover in the upstairs hallway. They’d then have us line up on the stairs, pets and youngest kids near the bottom steps and older kids at the top. To record our holiday pj’s, puffy eyes and bed heads, they’d snap a photo.

When I was little, I jumped out of my sleeping bag and eagerly posed for a picture. As a teenager, I tried to beat my parents’ Christmas-music alarm to allow time to tend to my Einstein-esque coiffure. Still, the frizziness usually prevailed, especially in contrast to my sisters’ long, dark manes.

Sifting through family albums recently, my mom and I speculated my twisty ‘do could be from her dad, my grandpa Larry -- a half-German, half-Swedish guy who had an English degree and hair that rivaled Albert’s. He died at 54, when I was barely 5, and left a permanent hole in my heart. He never read my first published article, he missed my college graduation and he wasn’t at my wedding last summer.

But in every picture documenting holidays, birthdays and major milestones since his death, my now often-envied waves stick out. And I don’t mind. I have his hair.

—Kaitlyn Roby


A war-weary soldier presented this rosewood box to an “angel” in Vietnam 1969.

The gift that keeps on giving

It was Christmas 1969, and as a civilian assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division based at Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam, I worked at a U.S. Army Service Club. I planned and led recreation programs for soldiers.

On that holiday, a soldier, dressed in battle-worn, olive-drab fatigues and whose name I do not remember, came into the Service Club with a gift-wrapped package. “This is for the angel who works here,” he said as he handed the gift to me.

I unwrapped the package and found a beautiful wooden jewelry box. Made from rosewood, the box is small and lovely; about 5 inches long, 4 inches wide and 3 inches high. It has a bronze circular decoration on top, perhaps a Chinese letter, and the hinges and front latch are also of the same metal.

The inside is lined in turquoise blue satin and includes special slots for rings besides the area to put bracelets and necklaces.

This jewelry box has held some of my treasures for 45 years, and I see it every day as it sits on my dresser.

I don’t know what initiated the gesture. Perhaps it was the smiles and warm greetings I gave him when he came to the club for a few moments of relaxation and peace away from the front lines of the combat zone.

Even though we really did not know each other, he gave me a lasting gift and I have enjoyed it ever since its presentation.

—Vonny Rohloff

Erin Hinrichs hung holiday decorations, shipped all the way from Minnesota, in her bedroom in Kyrgyzstan.

Erin Hinrichs shared a lighthearted moment with the son of her host family, Almaz, while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan.

Christmas in Kyrgyzstan

When I was living in Kyrgyzstan, where I was teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, I celebrated Christmas with my host family.

While they practiced the Muslim faith, they embraced my holiday spirit openheartedly. I’ll never forget opening that first Christmas package that my mother sent me, all the way from Minnesota.

After nearly six months of living in a rural, third-world community, I had developed a new appreciation for so many of the things I’d taken for granted back in Minnesota.

A sense of relief washed over me as I unpacked a pair of long underwear -- a welcomed addition to my winter wardrobe that I rarely ever wore back home. I found joy in a white pair of size 11 moon boots, which solved my impossible hunt for local footwear in my size.

The most memorable treasures, however, were the ones I shared with my host family. We ceremoniously savored dried blueberries, soups, peanut butter and a gingerbread mix, which added some much needed flavor to the staples of our winter diet: noodles, bread and mutton.

The Santa Claus window cling became a piece of year-round decor. And the perfume samples, collected from magazines, were a hit with all the women at the school.

Keeping the tradition alive, I send a holiday package each year. Chocolate candies, scented hand lotion, and a package of marshmallows for my host brother, Almaz, always make the list. I doubt these gifts have ever been so highly anticipated.

—Erin Hinrichs


Rate this article: 
No votes yet
Comment Here