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Beware of Howards Bearing Gifts

Meaningful holiday giving doesn’t have to be duller than a sack of potatoes

Illustration: Jenny Kroik

These days, my kids hate that I’m their mom at Christmas. My rule (sadly, one of the only ones I stick to) is that I buy only things we need or stuff I think is going to make us more evolved, well-rounded people. The rule covers all holidays—even the gift-giving ones— birthdays, and generally every trip to any kind of retail outlet. 

Lucky for Theo and Flo, my sharp-toothed vitriol for junk started just at the end of their belief in that jolly old fool Santa. Otherwise, nestled under the tree, Theo might have found his dad’s old baseball cards tied with twine, and Flo would have discovered my childhood doll, Poodle Mae, wrapped in nothing but a bow made from a scrap paper bag: our own personal heirlooms passed down intentionally and with ceremony, an idea inspired by a coworker’s beautiful (albeit morbid) story about how her grandmother wrapped her most beloved personal items as Christmas gifts so her family wouldn’t have to wait for her will to be read.  

Much as I’d love how good it would make me look if I said this attitude was all because I am frugal by nature, I know my friends and family would read this column and then call the news to rebut that misconception with my receipts from Charlotte’s Capitol boutique. I am not frugal. I am frustrated. So frustrated by all the stuff that accumulates in my house, and so embarrassed by the volume of things we’ve bought, that I am forever packing up boxes of objects no longer needed or never needed at all to donate to someone, somewhere, hopefully. I’m also worried. Worried about the planet and my impact on it. Concerned I should be doing more and consuming less. Certain the way we’ve always lived is untenable. 

Untenable is also how my children would describe my response to this frustration and fear. For them, my outlook goes way beyond the dearth of plastic gizmos and gadgets on Christmas morning. It’s not contained to all the times I say no when they ask to buy fidget toys or anything else plastic. Flo admitted a few months ago that her babysitter is so afraid to bring plastic shopping bags into our house that she has on several occasions parked in the driveway and made the kids stay in the car while she ran inside to grab cloth sacks so our groceries could cross our family’s threshold in something more sustainable. And recently I heckled the headmaster at my kids’ school about all the plastic water bottles I watched him clean out of his car and the example they set. It was nails on chalkboard for everyone involved. My kids glared at me. The headmaster, incredulous, stared at me, and I spanked myself inside. I knew not to do it, but I could not stop. 

You can see why a holiday whose call to action is to buy more stuff introduces a lot of problems for me, including all the paper and bows that only exist to cover a box—a box that despite my half-hearted efforts won’t be saved to reuse next year when I restart the cycle of buying things we don’t need so that we can properly celebrate the season. I am tormented. I’m also stained like everybody else by my childhood. 

For the Howards, no matter the holiday, food comes first. Even when I was a little girl, my parents made me wait until everyone had a sausage biscuit in hand before they allowed me to open the foyer door to see my Santa spoils. Except for the year my uncle Bunk lost a tooth in his sausage link and everybody briefly forgot the point of the morning, the biscuit first, presents second tradition never really bothered me. Sausage biscuits stood for Christmas morning in my book. It’s when I stopped believing in Santa that things got real. In one year flat, I went from unveiling a roomful of Barbies in their DreamHouse to becoming eligible to receive educational gifts from my parents, and perhaps some clothes if I needed them. That year I also gained the bonus opportunity to join the “daughter drawing,” which is exactly what it sounds like: The daughters draw names, and we buy one another gifts. Johna, Currie, and Leraine were then seventeen, twenty, and twenty-two. I was eight. 

That first year I fared pretty well. I got a Tandy 2000 and the video game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? But the giant box with Johna’s name on it really caught my eye. By far the biggest thing under our tree, wrapped and ready before any of the little gifts that bore my name, this box reminded me every day of Advent that I should have kept up the Santa charade a year or two more. On Christmas morning, I demanded Johna open the giant gift first. Paper torn, box opened, piles and piles of crumpled-up newspaper extracted, she found at the very bottom of all that trash her long-awaited reward: a tiny card that read, “11 p.m. curfew.” Boom! Genius on my parents’ part, I had to admit.

The next year was rough. My parents gave me a subscription to Ranger Rick, and my sister Currie gifted me a box of potatoes. As soon as I opened it, I knew the russets were the punishment she had promised at Belk one day when I threw a tantrum under her care over a pair of shoes I had to have. My face flushed red-hot and I burst into tears when I realized my whole family knew and had been waiting with bated breath for me to open the bomb of a gift. I never acted out in a store again. In fact, I credit this turn of events a little for my general distaste for shopping.

Although I have always wanted to believe I was an unhinged apple who hurled itself very far from the tree, I’ve decided I like the way it feels under the Howards’ Fraser fir, where gifts need to mean something. This year, we’ll start with food we’ve prepared ourselves: from-scratch Chex Mix, made by the kids for their teachers, and freezer soup I will whip up for friends and family. I’ll give Flo sewing lessons so she can use the sewing machine she received last year. I’ll make a jersey wall for Theo’s room so he can show off his collection of basketball uniforms that no longer fit. And I’ll get a professional to give my grandmother’s rolltop desk a coat of white lacquer so I can render it as a gift to all of us here in our house for now, one I hope will be given again and again for generations to come. 


  • ​​V’s Roasted-Banana Nut Bread (Yield: 1 loaf)

    • 4 or 5 ripe bananas

    • 2 cups all-purpose flour

    • 1 tbsp. baking powder

    • ¼ tsp. baking soda

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt

    • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon

    • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg

    • ½ cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing

    • ⅓ cup packed light brown sugar

    • ⅓ cup sugar

    • 2 large eggs

    • Grated zest and juice of 1 orange

    • 1 cup V’s Nuts, roughly chopped (recipe follows)


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and grease a standard 10-inch Bundt loaf pan with butter or nonstick cooking spray.


  2. Place unpeeled bananas on baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes. The bananas will become quite soft and dark brown, and something akin to banana syrup may leach from the skins. Once you see these cues, remove them from the oven, let cool, and lower the oven’s temperature to 325°F.

  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and both sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Lower the speed a couple of notches and incorporate eggs one at a time. Then add and mix in the orange zest and juice.

  5. Once the mixture is homogeneous, incorporate the dry ingredients in two batches. Take care not to overmix. Peel away the banana skins and fold the banana pulp (roughly 2 cups) and any syrup on the baking sheet into the batter. Follow up with V’s Nuts, making sure to evenly distribute the banana and the nuts.

  6. Pour the batter into the pan and slide onto the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the bread comes out clean. Allow to cool for 20 minutes before turning it out of its baking dish.

  7. For V’s Nuts: Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, whisk 2 large egg whites until soft peaks form. In a smaller bowl, stir ½ cup granulated sugar, 2 tsp. cayenne, 2 tbsp. paprika, and 1½ tsp. kosher salt to combine. Whisk the spice mix plus 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce into the egg whites. Then stir in 4 cups pecan halves or pieces, making sure the egg-white mixture coats the nuts thoroughly. Line a large baking sheet with parchment, foil, or a silicone mat, and spread nuts in a single layer. Bake on middle rack for 10 minutes. Take sheet out, stir nuts, spread back into single layer, and bake 10 to 13 minutes. When egg-white mixture has dried and nuts make a flat sound when tapped with a wooden spoon, remove from oven. Allow nuts to cool on sheet for 1 hour, then store in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 1 month.


Recipe from Vivian’s This Will Make It Taste Good