By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Christmastime is here, and the annual tradition of gift-giving is about to happen in earnest. From scarves to neckties, candles to candies, we’ve all been on the receiving end of boring, but well-meaning, Christmas presents.
But the staff at Cowboy State Daily have tales to tell of Christmas gift-giving that were anything but boring.
General assignment reporter and mommy columnist Clair McFarland tells of a gift that kept on giving:
When The Husband and I were dating we went to a Yankee swap gift exchange party at our church.
The anonymous gift I left the event with was a ceramic snowman-shaped snack holder in its decades-old, warped, original box. It smelled overwhelmingly of moth balls.
So, a few days later on Christmas, I wrapped the snowman and gave it to The Husband.
Life went on for a year. But the following Christmas when I unwrapped a promising-looking package from him, it was that ridiculous snowman.
We traded the thing back and forth well into our marriage, until about five years ago when The Husband said, “Let’s get it out, wash it, and put pistachios and Hickory Farms mints in it.”
So we did.
The awful gift won in the end.
Managing editor Greg Johnson grew up in a family that lived for practical jokes. He has several stories of not just crazy gifts, but gift wrapping that go over the top:
One year for Christmas, my brother Jay had procrastinated so long that he went out shopping on Christmas morning. The only place he could find open was a convenience store, so we all got candy bars, beef jerky and used videos from the store’s $5 bargain bin.
This same brother also wraps things so over the top it takes recipients hours to open, like rolls of duct tape and hundreds of zip ties, things like that.
“I have a photo from 2018 when he wrapped a gift for his daughter (my niece) in multiple rolls of tape, then ‘locked’ it with about 200 zip ties all around,” he said. “It took an hour to cut through it.”
But Greg can dish out the crazy gifts himself.
“I found a stash of dirty dishes my adult niece had stashed in the bathroom when she was staying with me, so I wrapped them up and gave them to her for Christmas one year,” he said. “She was NOT amused (but the rest of us were).”
Energy reporter Kevin Killough said that when he was little, his family was so poor that his mother had to get very creative with gift-giving:
When I was four, back in the ’70s, everyone was poor, especially my family. My mom worked at a packing and shipping company, so she got a big discount on boxes and tape.
She took boxes of various sizes and wrapped them in colorful, thick tape to make blocks.
I was about 2-feet tall at the time, so I had the equivalent of a 30-foot tower of blocks to play with.
I woke up Christmas morning and ran into the living room. I remember my mom standing there in front of this tower of boxes. I thought they were presents to unwrap.
I said, “Are these all for me?” And my mom said, “Yes, they’re all yours.”
So, I started tearing into the biggest one thinking I’d hit the mother lode of gifts that year. My mom yelled at me to stop and then explained they were a bunch of blocks.
Anyways, I had fun making lots of forts with “NO GIRLS ALLOWED!” signs on them that year.
A few years ago, Carmen Vienhage, our social media guru, got a very unusual gift from a very unexpected source.
“I used to have a stalker in Miami,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “And after I blocked her on social media, she sent Christmas gifts to my agency.”
Carmen, who also is a model, had gone to see a friend’s fashion show in Miami about five years ago. Upon her return to New York, she began receiving regular messages on Instagram from someone Carmen assumed was her friend’s grandmother.
“I always responded very politely because I assumed it was her sweet grandma,” Carmen said. “But after two years, this woman started making romantic statements, and when I asked my friend about ‘her grandma’ she was rightfully confused.”
Carmen ended up blocking the woman from her Instagram account, and then one day near Christmas 2020, she got a text from her modeling agent.
“Something came to the office for you?” read the text, followed by a photo of butterfly earrings and a very flowery note, in which the woman referred to Carmen as “Dancer of Light.”
But Carmen’s reaction was not what the woman had hoped.
“The earrings were quickly thrown away,” Carmen said, “and thankfully, after a three-year run, I haven’t heard from this woman.”
Cowboy State Daily’s publisher emeritus, Bill Sniffin, had a story to share about two very serendipitous gifts his wife Nancy received.
“One Christmas my wife Nancy received two quilts, one from her mom and one from my mom,” he said. “The two gals lived 320 miles apart and had never seen each other except at our wedding.”
When Nancy opened her presents, she found two quilts made from the exact same green and white material, but different designs.
“They were hand-made by these two older women on the same year for Christmas,” said Bill. “What an odd coincidence.”
Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily’s executive editor, shared a story about a Christmas miracle in his family:
When my nephew Jeff, who is unsurprisingly now a banker, began to grasp the concept of Santa Claus and his bringing of gifts, he asked me if there was a strategy to bribe Santa to get better stuff.
We brainstormed. Everyone leaves milk and cookies. Let’s leave something better.
So we went out on Christmas Eve in search of goods that we could leave Santa that would generate a better haul.
Problem was, most every store was closed. Except for 7-11s and liquor stores. Not a problem. We bought nachos, beef jerky and cigarettes (just in case Santa smokes). Then we went to a drive-thru liquor store and got him a Schlitz Malt Liquor tallboy.
The tradition grew every year to include goods not so much that Santa might like, but more for items that made us laugh and make better photos. Most importantly, that would make Grandmom shake her head and wonder where she had gone wrong.
Spam was a frequent item purchased. Bottles of Jagermêister. Sardines. McRib sandwiches. One year we ordered Haggis. “Spotted Dick,” which is English steamed pudding, was a great addition and the packaging turned the photo into a Hallmark moment.
Best part about it? It worked. We started hauling in the loot. We turned the “holiday of giving” into the “holiday of receiving.”
It was truly a Christmas miracle. I recommend it highly.
Political reporter Leo Wolfson shared a story about what could only be described as a “white elephant” gift.
“One Christmas my cousins gave me a pair of hideous, mustard-yellow underwear as a gift that were at least one size too big,” he said. “I never got a clear answer from them whether it was a joke gift or not.”
Needless to say, they were never worn.
Hillary Anderson, who manages every project for us with much aplomb, shared a memory of one of her most anticipated Christmas gifts from when she was a child.
“I really wanted a pair of Heelys when I was in fourth grade,” said Hillary. “So, I happened to find my Christmas gifts hidden in the basement and I decided I would practice using my Heelys, and then rewrap them so ‘Santa’ would not know.”
Not one to let a good plan go to waste, Hillary proceeded to unwrap and re-wrap those Heelys after school, rolling around her basement nearly every day until Christmas.
“On Christmas morning I had to act SO surprised, and act like I had never Heely’d before,” she said.
However, Hillary’s love for her Heelys ended up backfiring.
“I wore my Heelys to school and would Heely down the hallway,” she said, “which led to my Heelys getting taken away by my teacher. It was a very sad day!”
Special Assignments reporter Jen Kocher received a gift when she was 10 that could have led to disaster.
“I received a chemistry lab kit from my dad,” said Jen. “It was legit, too, with a bunsen burner, all these vials and tubes full of chemicals – very age inappropriate, in other words.”
Because Jen said she is “adverse” to reading or following directions, the outcome of her experiments weren’t quite what the creators intended.
“I would throw random stuff together and things would melt, burn and fizzle,” she said. “I may have even accidentally created a bomb or two. It was a toxic wasteland … and pretty much the best – but weirdest – gift ever.”
Mark Heinz, outdoors and wildlife reporter, had a very touching story to share about a gift he bought for his now-wife, which might just be the reason she married him.
My wife and I met in August 2008 in Powell. I have a couple of friends from college who live in Billings. Guys I truly respect. I consider them my “brothers from other mothers.”
Along with their wives, they served as the most important people to meet for any romantic interest of mine. If I took a lady to Billings to meet them, that meant things were getting serious.
Now, to preface this, I have to confess that I was a decidedly cheap boyfriend. I just wasn’t known to spend much on gifts for my love interests.
When I first took Kendy to Billings to meet my friends, they liked her instantly. They kept dropping hints. You know, subtle things like, “Look here, dumbass, this one is really special. Don’t screw this up.”
Things were going well as Christmas approached. I noticed that Kendy didn’t have a decent pair of snow boots. And before I even had time to ponder the paradigm-shattering implications of my actions, I marched right into local ranch supply store, found the absolutely most expensive pair of Sorrel winter boots I could find in her size and bought them.
I can remember Kendy being somewhat stunned when she opened them that Christmas Eve (her side of the family opens gifts on Christmas Eve).
Word quickly got to my friends about the sheer amount of money I had just spent on a woman I had been dating for only a few months. And they somberly declared: “Ah yes, looks like the dumbass finally listened to us.”
In July 2010, Kendy and I were married, and all five of our blended bunch of children participated in the ceremony, and my brothers from Billings were my best men.