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Grandma’s Oddball Christmas Gifts - And What They Taught Me about Giving

Christmas on a budget meant bizarre gifts that became treasured memories:

  • A Scotch tape dispenser

  • A hand-crank emergency flashlight

  • An embossing label-maker

Grandma's oddball Christmas gifts included a label maker, a roll of Scotch tape, and a yellow emergency flashlight.

If you are mystified that you have never seen a similar list on anyone’s “Best Gifts for Grandchildren” blog post, remember, you saw it here first.

Can YOU remember the Christmas gift your grandmother gave you when you were nine?


Well, I can: It was a green lockable filing box with a tiny silver key. Inside were some manilla file folders, instructions for creating a filing system for schoolwork, and interesting magazine articles I wanted to clip and save.

An original Grandma oddball Christmas gift: a green lockable filing box.

My Grandma Marie had a heart of gold, but her pockets were lined only with pennies. Her gifts were always practical but never lavish and seldom storebought. The other constant was her desire to pass on a skill; thus, I’d unwrapped the filing box.

Filing was a practical ability she thought I’d need, and she wanted me to get an early start.

At age nine.

One year, I received a coupon for lessons on how to set a formal dining table.

Another year, it was a folded piece of fabric—floral with blue roses—that we would use later to piece my first quilt.

Grandma had one antidote to her tight budget: her ingenuity. She would not let a lack of funds ruin Christmas!


This woman knew a bargain when she saw it, and if anyone could turn thirty yards of black fake fur she found on clearance for sixty cents per yard into something wonderful, Grandma was the woman for the job. I still have the faux fur vest she sewed for me for Christmas that year after she saw something similarly ravishing worn by one of her well-to-do friends.

The star Grandma of Grandma's oddball Christmas gifts.

Grandma had 15 granddaughters. We each got a faux fur vest. I would never have worn it publicly, but I still have it. It’s a favorite item in my own grandchildren’s dress-up trunk.

Everyone loves looking ravishing.

I remember Grandma’s oddball gifts partly because they were so uniquely random—bizarre items you would unwrap thinking, “What the…” while simultaneously feigning an appropriate level of excitement and gratitude. But there was more to it than that.

What was it about those gifts?

Why do all of my cousins have such quirky, fond memories?

Part of the answer is that there was something significant about realizing just how much thought and creativity Grandma had to muster to gift something meaningful to each of her thirty-one grandchildren. And the depth of that effort had to have a driving motivation.

What was the motivation?

How can you show a child she is beloved when you have so little spare change?

How can you turn nothing into something?

You detach the head and arms from a cast-off Barbie doll and construct a new doll complete with an inflexible evening gown stitched from plastic needlepoint canvas. You make sure your needlepoint design is in your granddaughter’s favorite color and that, if possible, the hair color and complexion match hers. Then you make 14 more so each and every granddaughter knows she is also beloved.

The boys?

They will get bright yellow emergency flashlights this year because you never know when one of those might come in handy. As long as you have the strength in your wrists to keep pumping the trigger continuously, you’ll never spend a night in the dark.

Grandma was the consummate “documenter.” She snapped a photo of her dolls before she gifted them. The notation in her record says each doll took about 10 hours to create.

Hand-sewn and handmade "Barbie" dolls from Grandma's oddball Christmas gifts.

One year, she proudly presented each grandchild with a maroon plastic 3-ring binder. Inside were copies of a collection of family history documents, including one she specifically encouraged each of us to fill in annually: A Family Chronology.

"The day will come when you will want to remember the most important moments in your life, and if you keep track as you go, you will never forget your life’s milestones,” she warned us.

My chronology has exactly zero entries when it could have read “1987: Received Chronology from Grandma, had my first baby, graduated from college.”

What a treasure I would have now if I’d only followed her advice.

There were matching tricot pillowcases that bled hot pink onto your face if you were unfortunate enough to drool at night. Monogrammed towels she stitched with our initials in a wide zig-zag stitch on her sewing machine (one for each cousin in every color of the rainbow, much to the chagrin of our mother, who was trying desperately to keep the bathroom towels color-coordinated). Green army men. A “Barrel of Monkeys” game. Coordinating pajamas made of bullet-proof purple polyester double knit. A spare roll of masking tape for each household. Hand-crocheted napkin rings shaped like butterflies that she starched with sugar water so they would hold their shape. Extra flashcubes and a roll of film for my Kodak Instamatic camera.

And always her personalized family Christmas card.

It was a photocopy of the original, a legal-sized white sheet of paper with photos she snapped herself and a typed sentence or two about each grandchild’s accomplishments.

If you failed to show up to the family reunion (or weren’t born yet), she took an exacto knife to another snapshot of you and pasted your head in. Grandma “photoshopped” her Christmas cards thirty years before Adobe existed.

Because she lived through the Great Depression and a family business bankruptcy, “making do” was nothing new. I believe that if she had been wealthy, she still would have created her curious collection of gifts because Grandma’s style was to imagine and then invent and create. And because she did, every gift etched a memory that included pieces of her.

I can see her still, her snow-white hair never out of place, wearing her denim apron with painted grandchildren’s handprints across the pockets. She’s reaching beneath the tree to pull out a treasure, call out a name, and wait with delight while the first gift of Christmas is unveiled. (After that, everyone else knew what they’d be getting, too).

Maybe that’s why her gifts have been such persistent memories. Every gift seemed thoughtfully curated just for me, even if thirty other cousins received their own duplicate. As she aged and her grandchildren married and started their own families, the number of recipients multiplied, so the gifts simplified.

One year, each of us received one of her own treasured heirlooms. Mine was the music box doll in a green gown that had stood on her piano for my entire lifetime. I knew it had been one of her beloved treasures and that gifting it to me represented a real sacrifice.

She wanted me to remember…her.

This year, as I ponder what gifts I will give my own grandchildren, I wonder whether any of my gifts will make the cut, whether the memory will etch itself, whether one treasure will be held as a tangible reminder of how intensely I love them and how much I want only the very best for them.

It’s not a responsibility I take lightly.

For the last Christmas of Grandma’s life, we each received a card with a photo of her and a poem she wrote herself:

"I am still kicking But not quite as high. I crochet and read While life passes by. I don’t eat much So weight doesn’t figure. I’m down to the size I wished for when bigger."

Grandma had a professional photograph taken to include with her Christmas card when she reached 90 years of age. That was the most thoughtful part of her gift: a way to remember her as she was. Tucked into the card was a $2 bill. “You see,” she confided, “a $2 bill is so unique that if you hide yours in the glove box of your car, you’ll always have a little cash in an emergency. No one would actually spend a $2 bill unless it were life or death!”

She was right. I still have my $2 bill.

It turns out I have never been truly desperate. And that is mostly because I have always known I was truly loved. Grandma saw to that with every gift she ever wrapped for me.

Lynnae W. Allred (Grandma Nae) is a co-founder of, where she collects ideas for play dates you can enjoy with grandchildren, regardless of distance. She is a professional Grandma and children’s book author, and her forthcoming book, “Chocolate Chip Cookies: The Stories and the Science,” will be released in 2024.

**Disclaimer: This blog post features insights and perspectives from a special guest writer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect Grandparenting A-to-Z's official policy or position. We are thrilled to provide a platform for diverse voices and experiences, believing they enrich our understanding and approach to "grandparenting." Please contact us if you have any questions or feedback regarding this article.


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