My Take: Being poor on Christmas
December 17th, 2011
11:59 PM ET

My Take: Being poor on Christmas

Editor's Note: Tangela Ekhoff is an inspirational speaker, comedy performer and ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. She blogs about marriage, motherhood and life in Oklahoma at Homegirl on the Range.

By Tangela Ekhoff, Special to CNN

(CNN) - For my husband and me, the crown jewel of success as parents is the shrieks and wanton joy that come when our children open presents on Christmas morning. It’s enough to breach the dams in my eyes. Every year, my husband (the better shopper) picks one big-ticket gift for our boys, the one we call “the Showstopper!”

The Showstopper is the present that is either No. 1 on their wish list or the one they didn’t even know they wanted, until they make confetti of the shiny paper that conceals the happiness wrapped inside. The Showstopper is THE gift. It’s so awe-inspiring that it causes an intermission to present-opening and signals the point when the boys forsake all other gifts to play with the Showstopper. Last year, it was Chuck the Talking Dump Truck.

This year, there will be no Showstopper.

I wish I could say we are avoiding the Showstopper out of solidarity for Americans who are too poor to afford Christmas. I wish we were that socially conscious. This year, the Showstopper will not be part of the Ekhoff family Christmas, because this year, we are the poor.

We moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to my husband’s childhood home of Owasso, Oklahoma, with high hopes and great expectations for opportunity. It is not going as well as we hoped. We have applied for several hundred jobs between us. I was rejected for a job at a chicken restaurant. I am from Alabama. I was born with a frying pan in one hand and a hunk of lard in the other. I’m still mad about not getting that job.

In a former life, my husband was a computer technician. In this life, he slings pizza, rakes leaves, shovels snow, cuts grass and bakes cakes, but it still is not enough money to pay for basics, let alone any utility bills. I use both of my worthless college degrees as microfiber cloths to fight grime as a house cleaner, and out here in Oklahoma, people are not as willing to pay for this service as they are in the South. I speak publicly and perform comedy, but gigs are harder to come by than we originally anticipated.

We thought the move to Oklahoma would turn it all around and send us sashaying back into our middle-class life. Instead, it has given us the final shove into the abyss of poverty. For us, 2011 has been the Worst. Year. Ever.

This is also the first year in the history of our family that we will not buy gifts for some unknown poor child as part of an Angel Tree project. Every year, we would buy hats, socks, mittens, jackets and/or toys for some poor child.

This year, at some church or business in our town, there are two construction paper Christmas stockings hanging on an Angel Tree with our sons’ wish list printed on them. This year, our sons are “those poor kids.” This year, if there is a Showstopper, it will not be purchased by us but by a generous, anonymous individual or family with the means to help us, the underprivileged family.

On the Christian calendar, the season leading up to Christmas is known as Advent. During Advent, Christians pray and light candles to remind us to wait expectantly and prepare for the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ. This year, Advent is more meaningful to me than ever. This year, our family has lost so much, and I continually pray for a miracle. As our family awaits the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we anticipate and long for a better world not just for us but for others who suffer in the “new” economic reality: poverty.

My greatest hope, as we await the birth of Jesus, is that God restores our family financially. Yes, it’s selfish. I am grateful the Angel Tree project is available to provide my children and hundreds of children in my town with presents this Christmas. But, selfishly, I pray that next year there will be no Angel Tree. My husband and I are both intelligent and hard-working. We want nothing more than to provide for our children.

As we struggle with the new normal, we pray (yes, selfishly) that during this Advent, as we wait for Jesus’ light to shine upon the world, that a sliver of that miraculous light will shine on our little family. Like a child anticipating the rapturous joy of opening presents on Christmas morning, I hold on to my faith and anticipate a rebirth, a renewal, a restoration for our family.

I expect a miracle. And in this season of Advent, miracles happen every single day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tangela Ekhoff.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Christmas

soundoff (1,294 Responses)
  1. antichrist i am

    they pay $350/hour for being a contractor in afghanistan.they also spend tens of billions on israel every year.obama will spend no less than a $1billion on his 2012 campaign.people who had no heart to stop a madman bush in assaulting foreigners,deserve to be robbed by that same madman.america=GRINCHICA

    December 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  2. Maggi

    I think that everyone here with all this "true meaning of Christmas isn't gifts" palaver is full of crap. If you're giving your children expensive gifts and then denouncing the practice, you're hypocrites. If you're actually depriving your children of presents, then you're jerks. Small children can only absorb so many high-handed lessons, and I don't think they should have to suffer if a parent loses a job or if a parent wants to pat him/herself on the back for rejecting the commercialization of the holiday.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • antichrist i am

      when you buy them stuff,you don't have to love them.i did work with some 20 something year old americans,it is amazing what jerks they are.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Leda

      This is ridiculous and an obnoxious assumption. Christmas isn't about gifts, and it's true origins aren't even Christian. If we're going to play like it is, then we should make it about CHRIST (the first part of CHRISTmas). If you are going to make it about Santa and toys then you are blaspheming. Christmas is about remembering the ways of Christ: forgiveness, sacrifice, helping the poor, remembering family and friends, etc. NOT about presents.
      And as long as you provide love, a home, the basics, then your kids will not EXPECT to be given things; if you teach them to provide for themselves (giving an erroneous gift is not bad), to work for what they want then you will be RAISING a child, not caring for a child.
      Good luck getting your kids out of the house, let alone teaching them to provide for themselves.
      In case you are wondering, yes, I have a child.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  3. DG Carter

    This year we are doing something different for our holiday. We are celebrating a NON-commercial Christmas. Since it is only the two of us, we are able to accomplish this. We decided that all year we get each other what we need in the way of clothes, tools, and stuff, so we are not buying each other presents. Since we live in the country, we have decided not to put up lights, a Christmas tree, or anything that you buy at the store to celebrate the Birth of Christ. Instead we will be spending our Christmas day being thankful that the Lord directs our lives daily, that Christ died for our sins, and that we have what we need to live our lives. We will share a delicious dinner together and be happy that we are here to celebrate this holiday together. This is what we feel is the true meaning of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all!!!!

    December 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. In Luck This Year

    This story was very touching. I had already planned to donate to at least one angel tree project or simalar that are in my community, but I think I will try to give a little more this year. I have been given the ability to be home with my family for christmas this year and having just come off a deployment as a single soldier i feel that i have the ability to give a little bit more to my community. I now think I can find a little bit more to give. I may not have a job to go back to after the holidays but im still alot better off then some people. I hope that good things come with the new year.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  5. Cindy Christina

    She is talking about adjusting to a loss of lifestyle, and adjusting to any loss is hard, so don't judge. When you are not a very religious person, like me, it's hard to find much Christmas spirit when constantly bombarded with the over-the-top commercialism of the season. Sometimes I wish I was more of a church-goer. I used to love the holidays growing up.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  6. Paul R.

    Seems like one of America's problems is that we're always looking/planning for the next "showstopper" rather than building a life with a solid foundation. When did we become a country of envious, angry and wishful lottery pickers rather than a country of people who were satisfied and grateful for a smaller, solid lives? My GF is a psychologist with a clientele who have big-screen TVs & new Nikes but no food for their kids and who struggle to make rent, even in Section 8 housing. They literally cannot comprehend the results/tradeoffs of the choices they make.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Laney1025

      You painfully missed the point of the story. I understand the author's words far more than I would like to...I am walking in her shoes. It's not a lifestyle that she is hoping for. It's just being able to make her own way and provide for her children. Just like a lot of us out there that have become fodder for the naysayers and the doubting Thomas' of the world.

      To all of you out there. If you observe Christmas or not, please find some kind of warmth in your heart for those of us who have been consumed and mangled by these times. And feel blessed that you are not one of us who have suffered the most from this economy. You are, indeed, fortunate. But even more so please find it in your heart to not be so cruel to those of us trying to communicate what is happening to the average person in this country. We don't choose these things. I know that I, myself, fought hopelessly against the waves that sucked myself and my husband under. Gladly, we don't have small children anymore. But it doesn't make it any less of a struggle. It's long past time to take your neighbors' hands and hold on for dear life out of nothing more than a community spirit. Not everyone in dire straits did this to themselves. It happened without our consent or wanting to participate in this nasty mess.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  7. Maggi

    I don't think you sound selfish at all, and I truly hope that 2012 brings you a happier year with more opportunities! Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    December 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  8. Denise

    Dear Tangela and family:

    The real meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with gifts. Use this as an opportunity to teach your children what Christmas is really about. It's about faith, it's about family and friends. Spend time together, play games together, visit family. I think your children will understand, and will enjoy quality time with their parents and family more than any toy.
    Love in Jesus name.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Leda

      I agree; my husband and I are financially struggling with out 15 month old, but one thing we agreed upon before we conceived him was that we weren't going to teach our son about Santa or give him needless gifts. If anything we will spend the majority of Christmas providing clothes and food to the truly needy. As the author writes of waiting for Jesus, she should acknowledge that her behavior in wanting to provide TOYS for her children, the "Showstopper" is going against the whole message of Christ and Christmas.
      I understand if the author was referring mostly to needing clothes or money for bills, as that is one subject; if she was referring to toys and other unnecessary items then that is a shame.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  9. sheila kind

    Alas, as many responses here show, there are more than a few mean spirited folks in this country who no longer have optimism or the desire to help others. They've become bitter cynics with cold hearts and for that they deserve our pity. Truly I feel sorry for them. The Ekhoffs may be in a bad place now but at least they have something resembling optimism and concern which they could potentially turn into something far more positive than rudely making uncaring statements that are meant to hurt rather than help.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Robia

      Most people will be going to live with Mr. Marley when they die. If Scrooge had a "ponderous chain" what will the chains the billionaires of our country look like?

      December 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  10. maxine

    we've been very fortunate this year, and I 've been able to help several families w/toys /food for Xmas.
    The majority were extremely grateful.
    I was floored however, by one request. Instead of the usual "We would appreciate anything you can give us" She passed a long a detailed grocery list down to specific desserts, and games for her 4yr old. Wii games. Really?
    I want to help peolple who are really in need, and I did. I did not supply the stranger with the expensive taste, however, and spent that $$ on a 9 year old girl instead.
    I hope I am lucky enough next year to buy a bike or 2 for kids that need them. Merry Christmas to you all!!

    December 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Chris


      God bless you for giving to needy children. I would have been taken aback also by such an arrogant request for Wii games, specific desert foods, etc. Although I hate going through the motions of my professional job and count off the years until retirement, I am thankful for the decent money that I earn. At Christmastime, I also give to charitable orgainizations because I realize there are so many people out there hate not having the privelege of a good income, and actually WANT to work. It is good that you exercised discretion when you refused to give to that person but instead gave a toy to a 9 year old girl instead. I have a similar story to share with you. Living in a large city, I have grown used to homeless people at busy intersections asking for a few dollars so that they can eat that day, and I generally hand out a few dollars. But I could not believe the audacity of a seemingly homeless person approaching me in the parking lot of a casino that I frequent to give him THIRTY dollars. He had this long drawn out story of losing his job and his home, and the homeless shelters of the city "did not agree" with him, so I handed it to him. As I was driving home, I realized that I may have been taken for a sucker, so I turned around, walked back in the casino, and sure enough, there he was, shooting craps at a $25 table. I was devestated, because when I confronted him, he shrugged me off as someone he never saw before in his life. As I waited in the parking lot to assault/rob this person, I watched at least three other verbal contfrontations in the parking lot over money, where the wife/girlfriend was in tears because that gambling money was for their kid's Christmas gifts. I then realized that assualting this swindler over the $25 that he scammed me out of solves nothing. I thought, who am I to go harm someone who obviously has a gambling problem, because really, I am in the same boat with the same problem. So I jumped in the car and dropped my $84 winnings anonymously in a Salvation Army kettle, and prayed for the person that scammed me.

      December 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  11. tlc

    we had a good paying job lost it when a new company came in and bought out part of the job so now we are down to a part time job and unemployment we have so far lost some of our furniture , the car , and still dont know about our house ,oh by the way me and my husband lost this job we are having to file bankructp so it is pertty bad around our house right now when i here people complain about there job i say be thankfull that you have a job. so rember there is always someone out there that is worse off than you oh had to take my daughter to the hospital tue she is sick but getting better.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  12. conrad215

    People forget what Christmas is all about. It's not about a ton of toys or a showstopper, it's about being fortunate enough to be with loved ones. Why does this world put a price on everything.......including memories?

    December 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • JR


      December 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Patty

      Amen indeed!

      December 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  13. PorkNBeans

    Am I being cynical?
    I don't think so. I bet that every last person posting here that she should retain her values and not buy expensive things for Christmas, that Christmas is about much more than mere presents. That "a good belly tickle will mean more", etc. I bet these people have a tree laden with gifts.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  14. Mike

    Rachel: "put wealth before kids"

    Yes. I call it "planning."

    December 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  15. Rachel

    I like her writing style and I feel for her family as they struggle to make ends meet. But I do not like the focus on "showstopping" gifts at Christmas as being symbolic of financial stability. Hopefully all will work out with their home and bills, and this Christmas will give them the gift of realizing nothing material like a Talking Truck compares to what they DO have this season.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  16. james

    Sometimes we dont know how rich we are till we lose almost every thing . God does not promises us everything we want just our needs and his LOVE .Please be thankful for what you do have . Look to you left and your right there is always someone worse off then you .

    December 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  17. Adam

    I am a small business owner who has just decided to close up shop. It's not financially feasible anymore. My wife with a bachelor's degree in Business Administration / Accounting hasn't been able to find work for 2 years since she graduated. I've worked jobs here and there on top of my full time business venture to try to bring in as much money as possible, especially with Christmas coming. To all of those naysayers, I invite you to my home to explain to my 7 year old boy why Santa won't be stopping here this year.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • vintage274

      I am 63 years old. I had to put my teaching career on hold in 2000 due to a catastrophic illness. I also had to borrow my retirement funds to pay for medical bills and expenses. In 2006 I was ecstatic about returning to the workforce. Last man hired, first man out when the school had to downsize teaching staff. Three months later and a lot of searching and I found another job. Yes! Ten months after that the school was restructured, and my position was phased out. After three months of intensive job searching in a shrinking market, I took a $10,000 pay cut at a charter school. My two Masters degrees and 15 years experience had to compete with college new grads who made $30,000 a year less than I did. I made concessions to get hired. At Christmas they told me they could no longer afford my contract salary because the school was in financial difficulty and gave me a check that did not cover my rent payment. I finally gave in and retired. I now live on Social Security in a tax subsidized, rent-reduced apartment complex for seniors. My monthly income has been reduced by 70%. My car gave up the ghost. I take public transportation to the library for entertainment and walk to the grocery. I stand in line monthly for a food bank giveaway. Life has changed. Times are tough. But you know what? We get through them. Times were tough in the 70s when interest rates were high and we waited in line for hours for gasoline and closed schools in winter because we couldn't afford to heat them. Times were tough in the 80s when the steel industry all but closed down in my city and put my spouse and thousands of others out of jobs that had provided comfortable benefits and good salaries. Times were tough in the 90s when I was putting two kids through college at the same time. But I'm not special. Times were tough for my parents during the Great Depression and World War II. Life in general is often tough. We have plans that get sidetracked by illnesses, deaths, and family emergencies. We have money; we don't have money. We sometimes get discouraged. But I have to say in my 63 years of experience and my mother's 85 years of experience that we get through the tough times and things always get better. If we concentrate on what matters - our families, our friends, enjoying the out of doors or a good book (free from the public library) or a walk in the park - instead of how little money is in our wallets or what we can't buy, we might surprise ourselves at how little we really need all of that. We need a roof over our heads (however humble); we need food to sustain us; we need some basic heating, electricity, water, some form of telephone communication, and maybe some TV entertainment; we need clothing to cover our bodies; and we need to have our health care needs met. How we live after those basic needs are provided for is entirely up to us and our ability to reach inside and know what matters and how to find contentment in ways that don't involve the exchange of currency. We have been sold a big bill of goods by advertisers and have made that thinking intrinsic to our beings. But it's a lie. We don't NEED big ticket items to enjoy Christmas; we don't NEED shiny new cars or shoes with red bottoms or granite countertops or big screen TVs. We need to disengage our brains from all that miscellaneous clutter that we've been taught to focus on and find what's really deep down inside ourselves - the thing that makes us human - the ability to love and laugh and find contentment in living itself. not in all its trappings. There's still meaning in the world; we're just looking for it in all the wrong things.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  18. Bollocks

    "I was born with a frying pan in one hand and a hunk of lard in the other."

    Well, meantime, she should at least visit her local Social Security office and apply for disability benefits. Hang in there. I'm sure some carnival out there that would love to add you to their freak show. LOL!!!

    December 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Ro

      Bad form, uncalled for and adds nothing. You must be on disability.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  19. Robin

    Wow. This is what it boils down to, not what we can do for someone else, but what we can do for "our own."

    You don't need a "showstopper" to be happy. Your kids don't need a "showstopper" to be happy.

    You have each other! You're paid up on your bills! You're probably ahead of 98% of Americans right there.

    The holiday isn't supposed to be about "showstoppers," but being thankful for what you have, cherishing your family, giving to others in need and generally being good to others if you can't actually help anyone else. Maybe instead of teaching your kids to expect a "showstopper" every Christmas, you can actually show them you truly LOVE them instead...work at a soup kitchen on Christmas eve and show them how many people are struggling so badly, they can't buy ONE lousy gift for those they love. If they see how much less fortunate OTHERS are, perhaps the miracle you pray for will be for someone ELSE to get back on their feet, for their own "showstopper." In a few years, that "showstopper" gift you want to buy now will be forgotten, anyway. If you teach your kids something instead about the TRUE spirit of Christmas, THAT "showstopper" will last a lifetime.

    Last year, my husband and I were so poor, we couldn't even afford to buy a dollar store gift for each other. The church gave us a Wal-Mart gift card for $20, and it went for groceries. This year we at least have a bit of food stamps, and we didn't sign up for the church program. But we're not giving each other gifts this year, either.

    My friends are pretty much in the same boat, and they understand.

    If I could write up a list, this would be my "showstopper" this year: Enough cash to pay our overdue rent from the months when work was spotty and we couldn't pay it. Enough to pay off the remaining balance on our electric bill, the "payment plan" we had to do because we couldn't afford electricity when work was spotty. Enough cash to pay for our insurance bill that is coming up, $400, because of a certain natural disaster that has hit our area twice, and FEMA will only "help" once (not that they really helped the first time).

    I don't need gifts. We no longer celebrate birthdays, holidays or anything, and haven't for several years. But I would be grateful if THIS year we could just pay off our existing bills. THAT would be our "showstopper."

    December 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Pat

      Well stated and beautifully written...I believe Ms. Showstopper may believe this article she has written will bring her a showstopper. Life is a struggle at this time and will continue to be difficult for so many. Maybe it's time to get back to the basics...for Christmas it's the celebration of Baby Jesus and closeness of families!

      December 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • vintage274

      Amen to that. When I was a kid there was always a Christmas wish list, and it wasn't always filled, and that was okay, too, because there was always something to open and enjoy. What was best about Christmas, however, wasn't the gifts. It was the preparations - baking and getting out decorations from years past and making the house look festive (often with construction paper chains and popsicle snowflakes and strings of popcorn– great fun). It was going caroling in the neighborhood. It was going for a ride to look at the lights and seeing a holiday parade (even if it was only on TV). It was watching classic Xmas programs on TV and reading traditional Xmas stories. And it was about dressing up and sitting down with family and friends to a great big dinner. It was the atmosphere of the holiday that mattered, not how big the pile of toys under the tree was. Kids LOVE celebrations. Heck, everybody loves celebrations. And celebrations are all about spirit, NOT about STUFF. Let's bring back the spirit of the celebration and forget about the stuff that doesn't really matter in the long run. If a kid's one gift is a basketball and games with family and friends, then it's a great Christmas. If a kid's gift is a board game that the family makes time to sit down and play together with laughter and love, then it's a great Christmas. Let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves and just celebrate being alive.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  20. Jennifer

    Not having gifts on Christmas doesn't make my children unhappy. Due to finances the only gifts the last 3 years have been a $10 pack of socks or underwear, or gloves. We will continue the tradition when finances turn around.

    December 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.