With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas just a few short weeks ahead, I have been busy making lists of cards I need to send, and gifts I need to find for family and friends.

While completing this task, I found myself reflecting on wonderful holiday memories from my childhood. My mother was (and still is) a wise, extremely frugal, single parent of two children. To this day, she has never owned a credit card, preferring to save money and purchasing only with cash. Even on an extremely tight school teacher’s salary, she made Christmas magical for us.

Laura Bittner, Family and consumer science agent

Family and consumer science agent

I fondly recall gifts she gave that meant so much to me when I was young, such as Barbie dolls, art supplies, jewelry and books — always books.

As I got older and headed off to college, Christmas gifts became much more practical. As a struggling student, I was thrilled to receive new tires for my car, boxes of canned goods to stock my apartment’s pantry, and, as always, books.

Every bit of the holiday was an event. I would plead with my mom to put up the Christmas tree and, when she finally agreed, we would spend hours looking at each ornament and sharing stories of the ornament’s history.

My mom would comment on the macaroni ornaments my brother and I made in preschool, saying how they were her favorite ornaments and requiring, much to my teenage embarrassment, that they hang prominently on the Christmas tree.

Decorating the tree also involved making paper chains, intricately cut paper snowflakes and new ornaments my mom would patiently help us create, guiding our hands, encouraging and celebrating our creativity.

Even though our family’s finances were tight, service to others was an integral part of our Christmas. My mom involved us in playing secret Santa for neighbors, selecting or making gifts and cards for elderly neighbors without family nearby, and assembling food baskets for families in need.

We even had holiday traditions — rather, requirements — after presents were unwrapped. My mother was adamant we write thank you notes to every gift giver. This requirement probably sucked some of the holiday spirit from our home as my brother and I fought her on writing the notes when we really just wanted to play with our new toys.

As much as I loved the dolls, books and practical gifts, what really made Christmas magical was my mom. The best gifts she gave to us were her kindness, time, attention, encouragement, devotion and example. How I have relied on and called upon these gifts throughout my entire life.

Besides pretty-wrapped packages under the tree, what are the gifts you give to your family, friends and community?

Need some help deciding on the perfect gift? Here are some suggestions:

• The gift of conversation. When is the last time you had a conversation with someone and you were completely engaged and actively listening? A 2017 study reported in Psychology Today found the happiest people are those who frequently engage in deep, meaningful conversations with others. One of the best presents we can give to another is being present.

• The gift of kindness. A kind word or deed to family, friends, or even people we do not know in stores or other public places can brighten the day for these people. Kind words allow people to feel recognized and validated — gifts we all crave.

• The gift of experience. Sharing our life stories and experiences can provide much needed wisdom as well as entertainment. It’s important to remember that treasured life stories and experiences will often be gone forever if they are not shared. We can’t wait.

• The gift of charity. Donating time and service to those in need — the elderly, infirm, lonely, etc. are priceless gifts. Shelters are full of discarded animals yearning for attention. The joy from acts of charity abounds to both the recipient and the giver.

• The gift of time. Time is a most precious commodity, and sharing time with someone is priceless. Research indicates a person at the end of life regrets not having spent more time with others much more than not having attained material wealth.

• The gift of gratitude. Gratitude is an amazing gift for the person expressing and the person receiving. Research has shown gratitude reduces stress, depression and insomnia while increasing self-esteem and improving relationships.

Another great thing about gratitude is that it can be expressed in more than one way. Verbally expressing your gratitude to someone requires little effort. Writing a thank you note is another way to express appreciation.

These perfect gifts are miracles. They cost no money but bring more joy than anything money could buy. May your holiday season be magical and filled with miraculous gifts of joy.

Program announcements

To register for an upcoming program, call the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service at 505-565-3002. For more information, visit valenciaextension.nmsu.edu.

• 2020 Valencia County Extension Master Gardeners training, Applications are now being accepted for the new year. Application deadline is Jan. 1, 2020.

• 4-H Enrollment: Now through Jan. 15, 2020. Call today to get your children registered.

If you are an individual with a disability who is in need of auxiliary aid or service to participate in a program, please contact the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service office at 565-3002 two weeks in advance of event.

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Laura Bittner, guest columnist

Laura Bittner is the former Valencia County family and consumer science agent for the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service.