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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Stumbling on Christmas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Kerrying On

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1956 was a hard year for the Patterson family. One evening Dad came home from work at the lumber mill in so much pain he could scarcely drag himself out of the car. He had tripped at work and hurt his back. Worried about his paycheck at the end of the week, Dad pulled himself to his feet and gutted it out until the end of his shift, despite a pain that (we later learned from a coworker) was so gut-wrenching he almost passed out several times.

Mom tried to heal Dad with a variety of homemade poultices that had such a stench they practically peeled back the wallpaper. But to no effect. Eventually Dad put himself in the care of a surgeon who cut a piece of bone from his hip and fused it into his spine. The Workers Compensation Fund refused to cover his injury (claiming he had aggravated a pre-existing condition). So two weeks later when he returned home to heal, all the money we had to live on for the next six months would come from whatever Mom could earn making and selling pastries.

The neighbors soon caught wind of our plight and hardly a day passed without someone dropping by with a slab of venison or a basket of wild asparagus. We quickly discovered that beggars, indeed, can’t be choosers as we learned to dine on everything from goose eggs to elk heart. But it wasn’t all gizzards and duck feet. One day, Walter Kaiser, the retired boatswain mate who lived across the street, brought by a huge bag of delicious unshelled peanuts he’d won playing bingo at the VFW.

As fall drifted into winter and Dad continued to heal, my thoughts turned to Christmas. Without money for presents I began to wonder if the peanuts would be our only gift that year. What I really wanted was a telescope. I’d found a picture of a swell one in the Sears catalogue, but I knew it would cost too much, so I put in a request for an inexpensive, plastic spy glass.

Mom could tell I wasn’t adjusting well to our newfound poverty and did her best to remain cheerful despite the fact that our financial crisis was exacting a toll on her. Between caring for Father, raising two boys, and making baked goods, Mother scarcely slept. And yet she was our rock. One evening she caught me crying in my room because my weekly allowance had been long abandoned and I suddenly realized I hadn’t saved enough money to buy presents for my relatives. Each year I purchased a gift for my grandparents, parents, brother, aunt and uncle, and two cousins. Now what would I do?

Mom comforted me while she searched for a solution.

“Let’s see,” she muttered. “You don’t have any money. I don’t have any money . . .” Then it came to her in a flash. “Walter’s peanuts!” she shouted with glee. “Walter’s peanuts!”

Mother then explained that she would teach me how to make peanut brittle for Christmas. A box of brittle would make a delicious present—for young and old alike—and we already had all of the ingredients we needed.

For several evenings I donned my mother’s apron, stood on a stool, and labored happily over the stove. On the last night, after the last batch of candy was finally completed, Mom brought out the end of a roll of newsprint and I colored on it until it made a suitable wrapping paper. Soon I had a nicely wrapped present for everyone.

But my holiday mood didn’t last. There was no sign of a spyglass anywhere and I was just sure my tenth Christmas was going to be the worst Christmas ever. Once again, it was Mother who came to the rescue. As I sat at the kitchen table, mooning over the Sears catalogue toys that I wouldn’t be getting, Mom gently tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and there she stood with her arm outstretched and an axe clutched in her hand.

“It’s time for you to go get our Christmas tree,” Mother said with a smile.

I couldn’t believe it. The axe was being passed on to me! Since Dad was house-bound, I would now carry the axe. Drawing myself out of my funk, I carefully took the bucolic scepter from Mom’s hand, hiked into the snow-covered forest that was our backyard, and chopped down a spruce tree.

An hour later, as I huffed, puffed, and hauled the newly cut tree to our home, I ran into Walter.

“That’s kind of a shabby looking thing,” the former navy man barked as he bit down on his pipe.

It was. The good looking trees were too far away for me to haul them all the way back to our home, so I had settled on a tree that was nearby. This tree was decent on one side and pretty shabby on the other.

“I have just the thing,” Walter offered as he disappeared into the shed behind his house. A couple minutes later he returned with his solution to our lackluster tree—a hand drill and several drill bits.

“Every place there’s a gap in the tree, drill a hole,” Walter snapped. I’ll tell you which drill size and where to drill.”

After I finished boring the holes, Walter handed me a stack of limbs he’d cut from a pine tree nearby and stated: “They’re not a perfect match, but they’re close enough for government work.”

Uncertain but hopeful, I began to insert pine branches into the holes I had drilled in the spruce tree. Then, with Walter’s help, I cut the newly affixed appendages to the right length and trimmed a little here and a little there until the tree looked surprisingly full—curiously motley, but full.

Christmas day finally came and all I could think about were the presents I had made. How would my family react? I didn’t have to wait long to get an answer, for soon my relatives were tearing away the homemade wrapping paper and sampling the treasure inside.

“It’s wonderful!” My aunt Mickey exclaimed as she bit into the brittle.

“And you made it all by yourself!” Grandpa Bill enthused.

“Why it’s far better than anything store bought,” shouted my uncle Vic.

“And just look at the tree!” my father proudly said. Then he paused for effect and asked, “Did you know that Kerry is responsible for that tree?”

“I understand you cut it down and then spruced it up.” (Actually I had pined it up.) “Is that true?” asked Grandpa.

And so, in a flurry of compliments and joyful affirmations, our 1956 came to an end. By mid-January, Dad had returned to work at the mill and things were back to normal.

I hadn’t thought much about that particular season until I started wondering about this year’s bleak economy and the challenge many people will have as they try to bring joy to the holidays. I don’t know what it will be like for others; however, I do know this. In 1956, the year of our poverty, I didn’t get a spyglass. We simply didn’t have enough money.

But you know what? It didn’t really matter. I still found Christmas. I found it in Mom’s irrepressible spirit and endless ingenuity. To this day, I can close my eyes and see her cheerfully toiling over delicious petit fours into the wee hours of the morning. Dad constantly praised me for growing into what he called “a little man.” That was his gift to me. My family complimented the brittle and the goofy looking tree I cobbled together with the same enthusiasm generally afforded a returning hero. That was their present.

During this lean year, several of my family members are taking their lead from 1956. Many are making gifts rather than buying them. My nine-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, has sewn a bunting for her sister who will be born on December 21st. The material for the outfit cost less than a dollar, but the fact that she sewed it with her own two hands makes it priceless. I suspect her gift will get most of the ooohs and ahhhs at the Patterson gathering this year. I also suspect that it’ll be Rachel’s favorite gift as well.

We’re also taking special care to spend as much time as we can together. The time of shared love and caring is the biggest part of any memory we’ll create. And when we gather on Christmas Eve, I plan on reading this story aloud. I’ll give other gifts. I’ll share other things, but they’re only things. This story, taken from memory and recorded with love, will be my favorite gift.

So there you have it—1956, the year of our poverty. The year my father tripped . . . and I stumbled on Christmas.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

62 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Stumbling on Christmas”

  1. Thanks, Kerry, for a great gift for your readers. I’m sure most of us have “something” like this in our family history. It’s a treasure to be reminded of the value of non-monetary wonders. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. What a wonderful story! It really helps put things in perspective, especially during this time of year. Thanks for sharing!

  3. His story reminds me of what is wrong with Christmas. The overwhelming need of people to spend lots of money, frequently on things the other person does not need or want.
    About 10 years ago, my family and I gave up buying gifts. We still get together to celebrate the day.
    The entire Christmas season is much more enjoyable and pleasant, without having the gift giving nonsesne.
    Having said what I did, I do spend much more money and enjoyment, buying presents for our workplace “Adopt A Family.” The gifts go to a needy family in the community where hopefully the presents are enjoyed.

    The best thing that we ever did was to do away with the gift giving at Christmas. I highly recommend it.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this story. In our society the general thinking is that the ‘things’ of the holiday is the ‘it’. I declare they are not.
    Tremendous is the gift of growth during challenging times.
    Thanks again,
    Tina

  5. You really are an excellent storyteller and writer. I look forward to the editions of Crucialskills when your work is featured. I hope you are working on a book of life’s learning experiences absent the emphasis on communication skill. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of a crucial conversation. I just think that your experiences have broader life lessons to appreciate.

  6. As I sit here at work reading this article tears well up in my eyes… this is a great article that everyone should read young and old a like. It is the Christmas Spirit that gets us through not how many gifts we get or how much money we have. I am thankful for my family, job and God this holiday season and this article just made me realize how lucky I am. Thank you and happy holidays to you all.

  7. Kerry: You have given this Gift to more than your immediate family. This was a very special story. Thank you for getting me to stop in this busy world and appreciate the most joyous part of all, our family and friends. God Bless you and your family and have another Very Merry Christmas!
    Regards,
    Kim (a guy)

  8. Kerry,
    A beautiful story. My wife and I are feeling a little empty this Christmas (it’s not about money fortunately) – all the kids are grown up and many of our earlier family traditions are no longer.
    So rather than spend time thinking about what we don’t have anymore, I am focusing on rediscovering Xmas in a new way. Thanks for the reminder.
    All the best to you and yours.
    Tom Brady

  9. I receive many business-related e-newsletters on a daily basis, some I don’t have time to read. But I look forward to receiving the Crucial Skills newsletter. There is always an inspiring, and well wrtten story. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. I truly appreciate them. Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season!

  10. This is what Christmas should be about. I will share this with my grandchildren who are always lavished with way more gifts than they need. Thanks for sharing!

  11. How WONDERFUL!

    Thank you.

    I really enjoy your stories/memories.
    May you and yours be further blessed this holiday season.

  12. Kerry,
    Thank you for touching my heart and offering hope at a very difficult time. My family experienced several similar occurrances growing up and the self sufficiency, pride, and self respect that come from creatively approaching your problems are priceless gifts.

    It also helps to remember where people may be coming from as we Master our Stories and open our hearts to those who sometimes act in ways that surprise, irritate or offend us.

    You contribute to us in a unique and powerful way with your storytelling. I am including you on my Thanksgiving list of things to be grateful for. Blessing to you and all of those in your circle of love.
    Lesia

  13. What a wonderful story, I really enjoyed reading it. That is what Christmas is all about! Hope your holidays are loving and happy.
    Shari

  14. I will be sharing this with my family and youth Sunday school class. We are not in this situation, but it will put things into perspective and help teach us to reach out to others.

  15. I love your stories – they are fully of humor and humility. Thank you for reminding us of what Christmas is really about!

  16. I cried when I read this story, remembering mostly “years of (financial) poverty” as I grew up. However, I can’t help but contrast those happy, secure days of my childhood with the years of financial plenty since, which in my life unfortunately have been most often accompanied by emotional poverty. There’s no question which I would prefer. You were truly blessed.

  17. I never tire of your stories. It has become very clear to me that the people we are today began forming when we were young and going through our very first difficult experiences.

    Your themes take me back to MY youth and those days when Mom and Dad were forming the clay that has become ME.
    Thanks.

  18. Thank you Kerry for sharing such a beautiful reminder of the season. Once again you have blessed us by sharing from a huge heart. Your neighbor and my father must have grown up together. I learned the drill and branch trick from my dad. Your story brought back great memories.

  19. What a moving story. I bet that even though it was a very difficult time for your family, the character building and personal growth you and your family members must have gone through only in hind sight was worth it. Do you remember your 13th or 15 Christmas as well as your 10th? Thank you for a great story. As a parent, I stuggle with how to build humility in my two boys with a want for nothing really. It sounds like your Mom is one special gal.

  20. Thanks for the story — it has put into perspective that giving of ourselves does not cost anything and sometimes what we think we need, is not what we appreciate or value in the end. Money can color our world and is not the answer for everything we want. The story has put my home and work into perspective today. Have a great holiday !

  21. You have to write a book of you memories! My story doesn’t compare in the setting nor the extent of your hardship, but it does mirror the experience of making the most of Christmas. My father at the age of 58 had to borrow $1000 to buy our first home. To provide a better life for my sisters and I he added an hour train commute to his day and my Mother had to take a pay cut from her already low-paying nursing job. Our old Buick got us there and then gracefully died. As Christmas approached my mother took extra shifts at work and extra shifts in our kitchen making Christmas cookies. Since she couldn’t bring herself to not give us gifts she bought some little trinkets at the hospital gift shop as she dragged herself home on Christmas Eve. We made sure that she knew that they were the best gifts that we ever received. She didn’t buy it, but she hid her sadness as best she could. Cookies, hot chocolate, warm fire and lots of family chatter more that made up for gift shop presents. Forty-five years later… it still feels likes Christmas.

  22. I most sincerely agree with every word in Rob Capretto’s comment. I wish I had your gift with words. If I did, I’d tell you how deeply your writing affects me. Thank you for sharing your stories, for reminding us of our own stories, for the laughter and the tears, for always showing us the positive side of things. Just don’t stop writing, okay!!!!!

  23. Kerry,

    What a lovely story, thank you.

    For the past few years I have focused on the relationships in my life. My thought was to make sure that everyone in my life knew that I loved them and they were very important to me. I would do whatever it took to see family and friends when they were ill…which I usually did anyway, but I began to set up dates for no reason at all…no one was ill, no one needed a sitter, no one needed a ride. It was a visit strictly set up to visit. My relationships are strong and vibrant because we were able to actuall connect!

    Again this Christmas season I am not giving material gifts, I am giving myself, sharing myself with my loved ones, as I have done all year long. I ask for nothing either, except that we all visit together at some time during the holiday season. Our gifts to each other will be reaquainting ourselves by talking, stories, food, music, pictures, laughing and fun!

  24. I am sitting at my desk with tears in my eyes. What a beautiful story and what wonderful parents you had. The Patterson’s are very blessed…but you already know that. Have a wonderful holiday season and thank you for the reminder of what the season should really be all about.

  25. Thank you. A good reminder of the truly important things. Last year just before Christmas one of my sisters was diagnosed with cancer. Her life has come to an end. The gift I received from this experience is a realization of the quality of time spent with family and friends. It could all be gone tomorrow. So I look at spending time with family in a different light. I am appreciating the experiences that previously seemed rote and mundane. Value the time, the sound of voices and communicate frequently. No excuses for not keeping in touch in this electronic age.

  26. What beautifully articulated reminder of what Christmas is all about! Your words painted vivid pictures I could see in my head as I read your story. Thanks so much for sharing from your family. Have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving Kerry!

  27. Oh, Kerry! That was WONDERFUL! If I could afford it, I would buy the movie rights. I think your ’56 Christmas Story would surely be the next Christmas classic!

  28. Hi Kerry: Wonderful article and much appreciated. However, I think that you missed a terrific chance to say how important public health insurance is for all Americans, paid for by your government. I’m guessing that maybe this is not where you stand politically on this issue, but it is certainly where I position myself. Your father had the luxury of being able to bounce back to normal, whereas thousands, likely millions, are not in a position to do so. I cannot understand why so many of your country’s citizens are not supporting this very basic effort to show compassion and support for each other.
    brian (eden mills, ontario, canada)

  29. Kerry, once again you brought tears to my eyes. We all need to be reminded about what’s really important at this and every other time of year. No matter how bad it gets, as long as people remember that, things will be O.K.

  30. Thank you for reminding us what Christmas is all about. The spirit of love, family and giving from the core of human principles is more important than the commercialism that has overwhelmed the true meaning of the holdiday season. Thanks and Merry Christmas.

  31. I never tire of your stories Mr. Patterson!
    Thanks for the reminder that the things we stumble upon may be the best of all. Its not about the “stuff”, its about relationship and belonging.

    I am reminded of one of my favorite gifts..made for my husband and I when we first got married, by our nephew (then about 6 years old) A snowman that he created out of fabric and buttons and scraps of vinyl..with crookedly stitched eyes to hang on our tree.

    Our nephew now has a lovely wife and a daughter who is 2 weeks old today. We still have the snowman – and it still hangs on our tree.
    Happy Holidays.

  32. What a very heartwarming story this is. I found it very moving and a great reminder it isnt about things but thos precious unexpected moments that become indellibly entrenched in our minds for us to draw on as we need them. My Christmas will be richer for having read this story.

  33. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Often times we forget what Christmas is all about. My family did’t grow up with much, but I was always grateful to have anything with my name on it under the tree, whether it was from my parents or from a local charity. I still get very emotional thinking about the many gifts I received through the generosity of total strangers. They will never know how special it made me feel then, or how I treasure Christmas now.

  34. Thanks Kerry,
    I was thinking this morning that this season, rather than boughten gifts I am hoping to spend more time with friends and family, have them over for supper and send them home with treats to share. The spirit of the Christmas season doesnt’ come from the store.

  35. Thank you for such a wonderful story at the advent of the holiday season. I’ll try much harder not to get caught up in all the ‘things’ and capture more of the spirit of the season this year. Best wishes to you and to your family…

  36. Kerry, I always look forward to your stories! The story about the old German who slapped a dime on the counter and downed the bottle of Coca Cola without breath, and this one could be the first two in a book of stories that I would be thrilled to purchase and share with my family.
    Thank you for sharing!

  37. I really appreciate this story. I have been a little in the dumps about several things this Christmas season and I have not been in a festive mood. I thank God for your story and for the reminder that Christmas is about more than things but it is about relationships and people. I wish you the best and most blessed season ever.

  38. Wonderful story and very touching.
    Hard times come to teach us a lesson and they typically shape up the future for a success/good time. I wonder how to inculcate such learnings when your kids are NOT faced with such events. Is there anything can be done more than telling a story so that its impact is more at the same time they do not go through the hardship.

  39. Kerry, As always I enjoyed your story so I forwarded it to a favorite friend to share the Christmas spirit. My, I was surprised to get a spirited (but not happy) reply. She said this was the fourth “…I enjoyed Christmas so much more when I was poor…” email she had gotten that day and she was sick of it! I was startled. I gingerly asked, why? “I’m tired of people who are now successful and well off telling me that they were so much happier when they were poor and broke. If that is the case why don’t they give all their money to the poor and go back to those days?!”

    Good point and good question, I thought.

    Kerry, I’ve always enjoyed your thoughts and twists. What would you say to my friend? Why idealize a state that you have no intention of recreating even thought it is within your power to empoverish yourself again. What does that say to those who are in that state and would do anything to get out of it? That they should enjoy it while you don’t join them?

    I’m still in the Christmas mood…just a curious one in these economic times.

  40. I can relate to your story so much and personally have a little bit of “1956” for this year’s Christmas. We are making homemade bird feeders. This probably doesn’t sound very special but how I got the star ingredient is.

    I was in a local store with my 3 year old daughter looking for pine cones. As always, I was chatting with her and a stranger overheard our conversation. She said here they are but they didn’t seem to be what we needed. She then offered a bushel full of real pine cones she had at her house. Mind you, I’ve never seen this woman and she proceeds to give me her name, address and phone number to come by and get the pine cones! I was overwhelmed with her generous spirit and how it would help us make our homemade gift even more affordable.

    When I arrived at her lovely home, there was a beautiful basket on the porch with a Christmas card reading….we are nature people and are thrilled you and your daughter will be helping to feed the birds this winter. Merry Christmas and P.S. Take the basket with you, we don’t need it 🙂

    I feel so blessed to have encountered this kind lady. She will receive the best, biggest and prettiest pine cone bird feeder of the bunch!

  41. This story is very inspirational and moving.
    The friend of the previous writer has an opportunity to talk about the power of stories extending beyond the literal details. Nobody chooses trying circumstances and people don’t usually welcome them or choose to repeat them. The lesson, however, is that challenges WILL come our way and how we commit to living our values through the bad times and the good times is what imbues our lives with meaning. As an educator, I’m afraid the friend missed the main idea.

  42. Thanks Kerry, I don’t think there will be a dry eye in the room.
    While I have been complaining about the lack of Christmas spirit that is only tied up on gift cards and cash presents and I refusing to put up a tree if there are no presents to unwrap, you have helped me to see the importance of the joy we need in Christmas. Think I’ll get the cookbooks out to bring us all together. Thanks for your gift of writing well.

  43. I, too, grew up in the 50’s. My mother only recently related a story of my first Christmas in 1946. Having no money for a Christmas tree she drew one on the family mirror with crayons. Now my mother is in her 80’s and will have no tree where she lives. I live 600 miles away and will be unable to be with her this year. However, I did draw a tree on a small mirror with permanent markers and sent it to her. I’m hoping it will bring her the joy my first Christmas did me.

  44. What a great story! It reminded me of last year, which was not a great Christmas for our family. Not because of lack of funds, but because my brother, just 20 years old at the time, had just been injured by an IED in Iraq. He was flown to Germany for surgery while the rest of us waited to hear if he would walk again. He was then sent to San Antonio and my parents, brother and I flew there to visit him. We spent our Christmas in a hospital room, eating hospital food. We didn’t exchange gifts until much later in the year. However, it was an amazing Christmas because we were all together and were reminded about what’s really important. I will never forget the other injured soldiers I saw there and the sad stories I heard. This Christmas we will be together again and my brother is doing great!

  45. Mr. Patterson,

    Your stories are always so perceptive and poignant to me. The one about the sharks when you were 14 years old, and how that applies to our social interactions was perfect. A story you told way back in 2007 “And One For Tanya” I still use once in a while when my group, Ethical Society Mid Rivers, is having a talk or discussion about giving and generosity.

    As Leader of the Ethical Society, I have encouraged all my members to read and study Crucial Conversations. I tell them it’s the number one ethical skill. To give them some structure, I have offered half a dozen or so guided tours through the book, explaining that I am not a “teacher” of the skills but just someone who has gone through the book (many times) before them, and that essentially the six-week program will be a self-study book discussion.

    Is there a way I can contact you to ask you about my offering the same thing to a community college? I don’t want to violate any boundaries of your trainers, but think there must be a way to get the word out to more people, to get more people to see the value of crucial conversations skills and to acquire and study the book. The local community college has asked me, as Ethical Society head, to teach a couple of evening classes on ethical issues. There are plenty of topics for me to teach on, but I would like to get people focused on the “primary” ethical skill. I would describe myself as a fellow student of the book, not a VitalSkills certified trainer, and I would send anyone who wants more in-depth practice in the skilss should contact VitalSkills. I don’t feel that I would be truly competing with you, but rather tilling the soil, so to speak, and trying to spread the influence of the book you have put out for public consumption.

    Thank you.

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