Christmas Gift! Giving Priceless Gifts with no Money

Christmas is just around the corner. That means people will have fought their way through the Black Friday crowds, the Clark Griswold’s of the world are getting their decorations up and families are attempting to cement their holiday plans during a national pandemic. Christmas is a hectic time of the year and can cause equal amounts of enjoyment and frustration. The desire to get the best gifts for your loved ones is real. Advertisers spend upwards of $6 billion throughout the holiday season trying to entice consumers to purchase their products. The average American spends over $900 for Christmas and as a country over $1 trillion!

Back when life was more simple and basic, the families of Big Run did not really have expendable income. So, they found another way to give each other a gift for Christmas. I’m not sure it started this way, but Pappaw asked someone what they wanted for Christmas one year. The response was “What’s the sense in you buying me a shirt, and me buying you a shirt? Just keep your money and buy your own shirt.” They were pragmatic people. Spending money on each other buying simple necessities was pointless but they still wanted to show they cared for one another. So they created a game that was simply called “Christmas Gift!”.

The premise is simple. The goal of the game was to catch the other person on Christmas day, unaware, and say (oftentimes yell) the words “Christmas Gift!” before they could say it to you. There was only one rule. You had to do this in person. This was a game of cunning, skill and deception that provided endless amounts of fun. To a modern person this doesn’t sound like it would be all that thrilling. We have phones and try to play a version of it but it isn’t as fun. We just use our caller ID and avoid the call. It’s just too easy. Let me give you a couple of examples of how they played the game to help you understand the thought process that went into giving someone a “Christmas Gift!”.

In the wee early hours of Christmas day (think 1 a.m.) Merle Montgomery hatched a foolproof plan to give Pappaw a Christmas Gift! He knocked on the front door of Mammaw and Pappaw’s house and my aunt Lisa answered. He said “I ran out of gas and I was wondering if your dad had any I could borrow.” Lisa said he probably did out in the building somewhere. So he said “Well wake him up and have him get it for me.” Lisa told him “Oh he had a real hard day and I can’t wake him up. He is so tired.” Undeterred, he insisted “Tell Corb to come on. I just need a little bit of gas and I don’t wanna get in his building without him being there.” So, Lisa woke up Pappaw and he slipped on his shoes to help out his buddy. As soon as Pap cleared the door, a whole van full of miscreants yelled “Christmas Gift!”. Merle had no reason to be out at that hour other than to try to give him a Christmas Gift! This one incident sparked off a years long tradition of hiding in trees and bushes, faking car breakdowns and making everyone afraid to leave their house.

One year, Pappaw included one of his nephews in the game. He told him “I need you to do me a favor. I’m gonna hide in the back of your car and I need you to drive me up to Merle’s and then pretend to break down in their driveway. Go up to the door and ask for some help and bring him back to the car.” So like any good nephew would do, he obliged. Pappaw hid in the back of the car and when Merle came out to aid the young man with a broken down car, he got a “Christmas Gift!”. No doubt pleased with himself, Pap just chuckled and gloated “Gotcha Merley Burley”. The only response he got was “If I ever see you broke down, I’m driving right past you Corb!” Cars were used often in the deception. Mam and Pap would make my mom and aunts drive around in the car to confuse everyone and hide Pap’s true location. Pappaw even hid in the school bus he drove on numerous times. This plan could backfire though because Pap had a tendency to get comfortable and just fall asleep.

More often than not, Pap was outnumbered because Merle, Virgil Jenkins and a host of others would get together and scheme to get Pap. So, one year while they were all huddled in the house, Pappaw snuck in. I like to imagine them all sitting around the kitchen table sipping their coffee on Christmas Eve (instead of, you know, being home with their respective families). They'd have the lights dimmed low brainstorming ingenious “Christmas Gift!” plans like revolutionaries planning the ultimate coup. Little did they know, the predators had become the prey. Just after Christmas Eve gave way to Christmas, Pap popped around the corner and got the lot of them. All that planning for nothing.

Another year, Pap shimmied his way up a tree and waited. A couple of people noticed Pap in the tree and gave him a “Christmas Gift!” but that didn’t matter. Pappaw had his sights set squarely on Merle. Like a cougar patiently waiting for his moment, Pap laid in wait. Finally, Merle emerged from his house and got pounced with a “Christmas Gift!” Patience was Pappaw's strength. One year, he hid in some bushes outside of Virgil's house (one of the Jenkins clan) waiting for his moment. Coincidentally, another family friend parked in the driveway and needed to use the restroom before getting inside (we are hillbillies and enjoy peeing outside). Unfortunately, he chose the bush Pap was hiding in. He walked right past Pap and did his business. Pappaw said he was so close he could have reached up and smacked him on the rear end. But, that would have meant compromising his position. I don't think I could have resisted.

Eventually they expanded the game to Christmas Eve as well. So for two days, the whole holler was terrified to go outside. People would stock their houses with 3 days worth of wood so they wouldn't get caught at the wood pile. They would pull out their old chamber pots to avoid outhouses (obvious hiding spots for a Christmas Gift!). So as giving someone a “Christmas Gift!” got harder, drastic measures had to be taken. Merle decided the best way to get Pap to leave his house was to smoke him out. Originally, he was going to get a damp newspaper and set it on fire under the house. The smoke would force everyone outside for an easy “Christmas Gift!” opportunity. After some thought, he decided it was a little too dangerous and just settled for a pile of paper on the porch. It didn't matter, the result was the same. Pap came out to stomp the fire and received a “Christmas Gift!”

Like everything else though, these good times slowly started dying off, just like the generation of unique and loving people that began passing away. A younger generation was coming up that had modern conveniences like phones and began diluting the origins of the game by simply calling people instead of handing out "Christmas Gifts!" in person. Also, the older people that began the game just couldn't sneak and hide like they used to. We continue playing via phone, but it just isn't the same. It can't compare to the enjoyment of spending an entire year thinking about how you are going to deceive someone who knows you are going to be somewhere waiting for them. Imagine the paranoia, joy and excitement that came with that. The feeling had to be greater than looking at wrapped boxes under a tree. Ultimately, by sneaking around and saying two words, our grandparents were able to express how much they cared for one another in a way they couldn’t with money. They spent a whole year thinking about a single moment designed for a single person. It was a wholly unique gift. I know I've only included a few stories and there has to be more that I don't know. If you have one please tell it to me, I’d love to hear it. Every family has fun and different Christmas traditions. What are your favorites? We'd love to hear about them. Feel free to leave a comment or email us at

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