A guide to making Christmas much easier.

The secret is at the gas station.

Covid Christmas. Family packed into a rented house in the Black Hills. Turns out, dad had the ‘rona. I ate his cookies since he couldn’t taste them.

My friend and I got to talking about Christmas, and gift giving.

Farming in the 1980s wasn’t super lucrative, so while we got gifts at Christmas as kids, it wasn’t pile upon pile. Mom was adamant that Christmas Eve was about celebrating Jesus’ birthday, not about Santa, so she did an excellent job at keeping us from focusing on the packages under the tree and putting Jesus before gifts. There was a birthday cake for Jesus, around which we’d sing happy birthday. Then we’d read the Christmas story from the Bible. One year, we apparently acted it out in costume but I was little and don’t really remember it.

Then the gifts.

Homemade gifts. Re-gifted gifts. Practical gifts. Books. Always some books. And some fun gifts. Not too many, but just right. One from each set of grandparents, something crocheted from Lucille down the road, and a few from mom and dad. One year I wrapped up just about everything that wasn’t nailed down, and mom had to wait a few weeks to gain access to her sewing thimble again. If you don’t remember you own it, who’s to say it isn’t a nice surprise when you take the paper off?

Christmas 2020 (a.k.a. “covid Christmas”) had several classic moments, including watching my grand-niece open a gift and seeing it was from my sister and was also what I’d given my sister the year before. We both looked at each other as my grand-niece oohed and aahed, and quietly snickered; re-gifting strikes again.

“What if we put limits on how we did gifts?” my friend pondered as we sat at the table in a coffee shop. “For example, you could only buy your gift at a gas station.”

“I love that!” I said. And I did. Immediately I could see the hilarious fun that would be. “I’m going to steal that and use it with my family next year, if you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead,” he said.

Air pressure gauges. HEET. A candy bar. A bag of donuts. Scented cardboard pine trees. The very cute stuffed green dinosaur at the Sinclair gas station in Devils Lake, North Dakota which sells for $19.99, not that I’ve paid special attention or anything.

“Gas stations actually have some nice stuff now,” I said, reminding my friend that the last time we stopped at the gas station in Steele, North Dakota, I’d actually mentioned that they had such nice gift items that a guy could do all his Christmas shopping there. “You know, a lot of guys probably really do all their Christmas shopping at gas stations.”

He nodded.

“Heck, we could do it all on the drive to your folks in Minnesota on the way to Christmas!” I joked. “Pop into the Kwik Trip in St. Cloud and call it good.”

“That’s even better,” he said. “We could say that you can only get your gifts within two weeks of Christmas.”

“That’s very generous. I know some people who do it on Christmas Eve a few hours before the get-together.”

Really, this is not a far-fetched idea. Two years ago, after a fine supper of chicken and dumplings at The Cracker Barrel, I did all my Christmas shopping in the gift store.

We began to think of more possibilities.

Only homemade items.

Only from secondhand stores.

Anything you want, but it can’t be something you bought. (Theft is frowned upon.)

Something you have around the house. (A page from my playbook.)

Something from a trip or whatever travel you did that year.

During covid Christmas 2020, we exchanged small stocking stuffer gifts, and then did a white elephant gift exchange. It turned out to be hilarious, and the mix of random gifts included, among other things, Christmas printed toilet paper (a gold ticket item, considering the year), a half-finished scarf that my sister had to take back from the recipient and promise to finish knitting, a guest book for the bathroom, and a soft sloth blanket we all wanted to claim.

I actually got all my gifts at Ace Hardware last year, but they have a lot of cool stuff so it’s not as weird as it sounds.

“My brother would probably get me a quart of oil,” I said as I sipped my hot chocolate, fixating on the gas station idea. “That’s not a bad gift. Totally practical.”

As you get older, you just don’t want more stuff. At least, I think that’s the norm for most people.

Great memories are the better gift, things like hilarious white elephant gift exchanges, crowding into a lodge house in the Black Hills just in time for a snow storm, singing happy birthday to Jesus in the glow of the candles on the cake, mom reading about the angels and shepherds and Jesus from the Bible—there are few greater joys than sitting down with family and laughing over a bunch of remember whens, whether they are recent or older memories.

Remember when grandma got us all matching sweatshirts and we had to wear them.

Remember the nighttime hayride across the snowy field as dad pulled the hay trailer with the tractor.

Remember going caroling with Pastor Lee.

Remember driving around to look at the lights with a hot chocolate and Christmas music in the car.

Remember doing a puppet show to the song “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and being surprised that grandma was actually upset when we were done.

Remember grandma’s huge pancake griddle and Christmas morning breakfast.

Remember walking into grandma and grandpa’s house on Christmas day while grandpa watched TV with his huge satellite dish and the scene where they open the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark was on the screen and we bounced into the living room with young, innocent, we-don’t-have-a-TV-at-home eyes just in time to see a Nazi guy's face melt off.

Remember when we all got food poisoning.

Remember the snowball fight at covid Christmas.

Heck, remember covid Christmas, period.

Why should the 5th of November and the Alamo get all the remembrance?

I guess I’d just encourage you, this Christmas, to make some really awesome remember whens, all while remembering Who. It doesn’t happen in the gifts, because most of us quickly forget the stuff we got. It happens in how you love and laugh with each other, thankful that Jesus came to earth.

I am absolutely convinced a gift giving limit of gas-station-only purchases could result in off-the-charts fun. I can’t wait for next year, and am already contemplating things I could do with Corn Nuts.