Two events changed my life the summer I turned 16. I started a full-time job at a potato processing plant in the outskirts of Rexburg, Idaho, earning more money each week than I’d ever had, and I saw my mother take my father’s winter coat from the entry closet of our home.
When she then tried it on, I wondered what she was doing. It was much too early in the year to worry about coats; it was hot outside.
“Money’s tight this year,” she said when I asked her about it. Though she needed a new coat, she and my father couldn’t afford it.
My father worked long, hard hours providing for our family, serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the community. My mother, always stalwart, always faithful, always striving to teach her seven children correct principles, was a stay-at-home mom who kept our home and family together.
At that age, I knew on an intellectual level that my parents’ righteous sacrifices for our family often went unnoticed, but just then, that knowledge struck an emotional chord inside me. Wasn’t there something I could do to show my appreciation?
That’s when I had an idea. Because of my job, I could save enough money before winter to purchase my mom a coat and give it to her as a surprise Christmas present. Christmas and surprises went hand-in-hand, after all.
Motivated by my new plan and hoping my mother hadn’t noticed my smile, I found a manila envelope and went downstairs to my basement bedroom. I wrote “Christmas” on the front of the envelope and added it to the three others I’d already labeled “Tithing,” “Spending” and “Savings.” I then secured the four envelopes between my bed’s mattress and box springs. I was set.
Or so I thought.
The longer I considered my plan and imagined my mother’s surprise on Christmas morning, the more excited I became. To this day, one of my favorite activities is to surprise others with gifts that touch their hearts. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I love the Christmas season.
So, as the oldest of my siblings, and wanting to involve them in my excitement, I told my two teenage sisters and my 11-year-old brother what I’d seen and heard from my mother. Then I explained what I planned to do and asked them if they would like to help me with this Christmas surprise.
“I thought we could manage it the same way we pay tithing,” I said. “Everyone just donate at least 10 percent of whatever they earn.”
“A coat costs a lot of money,” one sister said. “The only money I ever get comes from baby-sitting.”
“I don’t make much money either,” my brother said.
“That’s all right,” I said. “If you make one dollar and put in 10 cents, you’ll have done your part.”
“And we’ll go together to buy the coat?” another said.
“Yes, at Christmas.”
Each paused for a moment, and then, one by one, each agreed to participate in our Christmas project.
During the next several months, the four of us worked, earned money where we could, and added 10 percent of those earnings to the Christmas envelope. Sometimes we gave more than the 10 percent we’d committed to donate, but many times, it was nearly more than we could give to donate another 10 percent after paying our tithing. But no matter how hard it was, no one complained and everyone lived up to their commitments.
I especially remember one hot afternoon. My brother had just come into the house after an extra-hard day of mowing the neighbors’ lawns. His face was dirty and streaked with sweat, and his expression was solemn. He hadn’t even stopped to clean up. He simply went downstairs to where I was in my bedroom and handed me one dollar.
“Here,” he said.
My breath paused. He looked like he’d worked harder for that money than I’d ever had to at my job. I wondered if I should tell him not to worry about it? We would probably have enough without it.
But then I remembered our agreement. “Thanks,” I said. When he walked away, I struggled to hold back my emotions because I saw him as I supposed the Savior might have seen the poor widow who, in spite of her want, had given all she had to the treasury (see Mark 12:41-44).
A few days before Christmas, we dumped the money out of the Christmas envelope onto my bed. We then counted what we had saved.
To our surprise and delight, we discovered we had more than enough to buy the coat. So much more, in fact, that we decided that after we purchased the coat, we would spend the remaining money on special, anonymous Christmas gifts for everyone in our family. The younger children, we knew, would love to find something unexpected under the tree. And our father? Like usual, we didn’t know what we could get him, but with the four of us working together, surely we could come up with something that would surprise him.
Since it was the Christmas season, my parents didn’t ask many questions when I requested to borrow their car to go shopping with my three oldest siblings, but when we reached the first store, we realized we were not as prepared to purchase the gifts as we’d thought.
We didn’t know what we should get everyone, but worse, we had no idea what size of coat our mother wore. Once again, we had to rely on one another. To determine our mother’s coat size, we took turns trying different styles on ourselves as well as holding them in front of us at about the height we knew our mother was and imagining her wearing it. For the other gifts, we did the only thing we could do: we guessed. I was particularly grateful that my brother knew what my 8-year-old brother would like, since none of us girls had a clue.
Finally, with our purchases made and the envelope empty, we headed home. On the way, we discussed how we might sneak the gifts into the house and downstairs to my room without anyone seeing us, but when we pulled into the garage, we discovered providence was with us again. No one was home. The four of us quickly took the packages inside and barely finished hiding them when the others returned.
Christmas Eve arrived. Our family gathered round the lit Christmas tree, turned off the house lights, and read together from the Bible the story of Jesus Christ’s birth. We also sang Christmas songs and watched the multicolored tree lights flash until it was time for us children to go to bed. Because my brother’s bedroom was located next to my parents’ room and my sisters and I shared the downstairs bedroom, the four of us decided my sisters and I would stay awake through the night until everyone had gone to sleep. After that, we would deliver the presents.
I don’t remember if my sisters and I stayed awake and played games or if we turned off the light and pretended to sleep, but in the wee hours of the morning, we crawled out of bed. Quietly, we gathered the unwrapped gifts in our arms, tiptoed up the stairs to the living room, and spread the gifts around the tree next to everyone’s Christmas stockings.
In previous years, each of us had crept from our rooms on Christmas Eve to see what Santa had brought us, but that year, I don’t believe any of us thought of ourselves. In fact, we barely even noticed the gifts Santa had left for us; we were too busy trying not to crackle shopping bags, crash into furniture or giggle too loudly as we set out our Christmas surprise.
Christmas morning came as it always did, with us children anxiously waiting for the clock to strike 7 a.m. so we could rush to the tree to see what Santa had brought us. My parents usually stayed in bed during that time, listening to our comments or perhaps getting a bit more shut-eye after their own late-night Christmas preparations. They would join us a short time later.
But that Christmas morning was different.
The moment my youngest sisters, ages 2 and 4, saw the dresses we’d purchased for them, they held them in front of their bodies and twirled around the room. “Thank you, thank you!” they cried out.
I heard a few surprised mumbles from my parents’ room, but it wasn’t until my 8-year-old brother lifted his gift in both of his hands and yelled, “Wow! Thanks for the car set, Mom and Dad!” that things really changed.
“What?” My dad’s voice sounded incredulous.
“We didn’t get you that!” Mom said.
My sisters, brother and I grinned at each other. I then heard bustling from my parents’ room as they quickly dressed, and within moments, they’d joined us in the living room. Their eyes were wide and their mouths open as they stared from one to the other of the anonymous gifts.
“How did this happen?” my dad said.
And then my mother saw her coat. She walked to where it was draped across the couch and picked it up. Tears slid down her cheeks.
“Who did this?”
None of us four co-conspirators answered them. We wanted our gifts to remain a secret. But the truth was, I don’t believe any of us could have spoken just then if we’d tried.
That experience will forever be one of my favorite Christmases because that season my sisters and brother and I felt the true spirit of Christmas; we loved and served others, and we worked together in unity and peace. Even more importantly, I will cherish it because that day, whether my parents knew it or not, their love and sacrifices for us children were noticed.
Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen's novel "Betrayed" is scheduled to be published in June 2014 by Covenant Communications.