Eli McCann: Why the best Christmas gifts aren’t the presents. Sometimes, it’s the sacrifice that counts.

Remembering when my husband-to-be sent me on a holiday quest that helped me fall in love with him.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Columnist Eli McCann says the sacrifices embedded in expressions of love mean more than the gifts themselves.

Since I was a young child, my mom has recounted a Christmas story to us on an annual basis — her most memorable holiday.

This must have been around 1969. Mom grew up as the oldest of 10 children, raised by a terrific single mother, exceptionally poor. Christmas in her family was simple, and it rarely included any gifts to write home about.

When she was in high school, her younger siblings excitedly woke her up on Christmas morning, telling her there was a large, wrapped present in the living room with her name on it. Mom found the box a minute later. It was tall, up to her waist. She opened it and discovered the box was filled with trash. Mom figured her younger brothers were playing a mean prank on her, and she started to scold them for it, but they encouraged her to dig through the garbage to see if there was anything else in there.

Under the crumpled newspaper and discarded packaging, she finally found it—a brand-new sewing machine, something she had wanted for a while but could never possibly afford. She soon discovered her younger sister, Diana, had taken odd jobs around town and saved money for an entire year to buy it for her.

“I loved the gift,” mom has said to us through tears over the years. “But the sacrifice meant so much more than the sewing machine.”

Mom learned to use that sewing machine and has since made enough clothes to outfit a midsize country. She became so good at sewing that she now belongs to a highly competitive quilting group that’s harder to get admitted into than the Illuminati. One of my friends once asked my mom if she could possibly attend quilt night with this group sometime, and my mom laughed like the friend had requested casual access to Soviet state secrets.

Growing up in a family that had a certain “it’s the thought that counts” philosophy when it came to Christmas gifts has left an impact on me. “Just be thoughtful” has been my motto. No need to go over the top.

Then I met someone who changed everything.

Paper chase

In 2015, I had just begun dating my now husband, Skylar. He was living in Wisconsin at the time, and so he would fly to Salt Lake City for periodic visits. One such visit occurred in early December of that year. I’m a lawyer by day and was in court when his flight arrived, so I told him he’d need to keep himself entertained for a few hours until I was done with work.

I didn’t find out how he had occupied himself during that time until a few days later when I returned from the airport after dropping him off and I found, in my kitchen, a small envelope with my name on it. I opened the envelope and retrieved a card that had a riddle on it directing me to a nearby coffee shop, where I was supposed to ask for a woman named Sarah.

The next day, as instructed, I asked the neighborhood barista whether there was a Sarah who worked there. This barista’s face lit up when she saw me holding the card. She ran to her purse and pulled out another envelope with my name on it. This new envelope had another card with another riddle, this time directing me to a nearby hardware store, where I was supposed to ask for Michael. Michael’s card sent me to a grocery store to locate a Derrick.

The card-gathering scavenger hunt took me all over the city until, finally, the last card directed me to the location of my Christmas present, which, frustratingly, was hidden in my own house, mere feet from the location of the inaugural card.

I’ve told a lot of people this story and the typical reaction includes swooning gasps and an admiring “awe.” Then I’ll remind them this whole ordeal took me weeks to sort out and was, in fact, quite inconvenient.

But something happened as I went about my hometown gathering clues from strangers who recently had an interaction with Skylar: Each place I went, the summoned employee would hand over the card and then gush about how much they enjoyed talking with him. Several of them said some variation of “you are so lucky” to me. I realized he had gone about town charming everyone in his wake, to the point that they had become some of his most loyal personal evangelists.

Sacrifice brings forth blessings of gift-giving

(Heather Wrigley) Cathie McCann, right, pays tribute to son Eli McCann, left, and his husband, Skylar Westerdahl, on the couple's wedding day.

The final present in my home was underwhelming, if I’m being honest. But the sacrifice and the bonus of hearing so much adoration of this man I had just begun dating were the real gifts — among my favorite gifts I’ve ever received.

He couldn’t have intended it, but the effect of this experience was such that by the end of it, thanks in no small part to positive references from service providers across Salt Lake City, I was convinced that I wanted to marry him one day.

The tradition of clever and committed gift-giving has continued. It has made holidays in our home more fun, even if chaotic and disruptive. Remind me to tell you the story sometime about the year I, with a 102-degree COVID fever, deliriously adopted a puppy over the internet to surprise Skylar for Christmas. Word of advice: Do not surprise your spouse with Christmas pets.

But I digress.

Whether it be a garbage-buried sewing machine or an animal that will most certainly urinate all over your house and eat your new couch and not improve even after expensive intensive training, may the sacrifices embedded in your own expressions of love mean more than the stuff this holiday season.

And if nothing else, may your favorite gifts come with at least a small amount of torture.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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