Twenty years ago, when she was a 17-year-old student, Anna taught everyone in my high school Writing To Publish class two valuable lessons.

I had assigned this warm-up activity: Write about a dark moment in your life that became one of your happiest memories. Most of the students sat and thought, doodled for a while and then begrudgingly began.   Anna (not her real name) went to a corner, sat on the floor, opened her notebook and began writing.

She wrote about the previous Christmas.  Their mother had left, their father’s hours had been cut back, the furnace had gone out and had to be fixed, and money was worse than just tight.   Dad and the three kids had to somehow make the best of what little they had.

They drew names from a jar.  Each person had $2.00 to spend on the best gift they could find, and wrap the present in the funny pages from the newspaper.   On Christmas morning, after eating French toast, sausage and juice—with popcorn for a treat–they made a game of opening the presents.

For Anna’s scavenger hunt, she’d helped her younger siblings get started with this example. Each person would give their gift recipient a clue, like “Go to the place where lint collects.” (The dryer.)   There in the lint trap would be the next clue, and so on, until finally the last clue led to the gift.   The hunt for presents took them all over the house and even outside.

It was the best Christmas ever, Anna wrote,  filled with laughter, adventures, and hugs. With only $2.00 to spend, each one had searched for a thoughtful, special gift: a mystery for Dad at the used book store;  a new spiral notebook for Anna’s writing dreams;  a package of plastic soldiers from the dollar store;  Superhero pencils and an eraser.

The class applauded after Anna read aloud her article, and after class I suggested she submit it for publication.  To make a long story short, Anna worked hard, followed all the requirements, rewrote, and finally submitted “The Best Worst Christmas Ever” to Woman’s World Magazine.  They bought it for $100!

Anna had answered the looming sad holiday with hope and laughter.   She also followed through by fine-tuning her article and taking a risk when she submitted it to a magazine.  And if Woman’s World had rejected it, she was prepared with another magazine address, plus a third one to try. Her darkest moment, she said, had been when she realized her family had only $20 to spend on Christmas:  $8 on gifts for four people, and $12 for a special breakfast. In comparison to that, she said, a rejection slip from a magazine didn’t scare her at all.

Before her dementia, my mother loved this story.   She shared it with friends who felt sad or discouraged about the holidays.  She challenged a writer friend not to quit after a rejection, but to Try, Try Again.   Mom lent her friend the Writer’s Market to search another place to submit her story, but first she had to find the book by following the clues of a scavenger hunt.




Filed under "Christmas Memories With Mom", Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, just doing the best we can, lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren, spending time with kids, writing, writing exercises


  1. What beautiful story Marilyn and so important for today’s times. Two years ago on Christmas Day I was sitting in a plane flying to Germany because my mother had fallen and passed awy a day later. I spent Christmas with strangers in airports and train stations but so many people were kind and caring .

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Gerlinde. I’m so sorry about your mother, and for you to be traveling on Christmas Day must have been a very sad journey. But the light in your journey was the kind, caring strangers.
    What a beautiful memory for you during that dark time. ❤

  3. A lovely story Marylin an one that sounds typical of your Mom to use as an example. I like the idea of the other author having to take part in a scavenger hunt..
    xxx Ginormous Hugs to you xxx.

    • Before the dementia, David, my mom was a spectacular combination of encouragement, wisdom, perseverance…and a happy sense of humor. So many benefited from it, and now, just telling the stories about her, reminds me of those special times and makes me happy. H-U-G-E hugs back to you, David! ❤

  4. Oh Marilyn, what a beautiful story. I know when I look back on many Christmas’, it is the ones when we did not have much that stick out in my mind. The interesting thing is my kids remember them as well. 😘 I love that your student submitted this story and won publication. Wow, that is fantastic. Xoxo

    • We were in the stage of writing personal essays and articles in the class, Joanne. I’d told them to check their ideas for 1) a take away message, and 2) a duplicable activity, and we’d studied published pieces that contained both.
      When Anna read aloud her story, everyone in the class knew it contained both of the elements, and I knew it was a highly publishable story. We all celebrated with her when the acceptance check came.
      You’re so right; the Christmases when we have little “things” but big love and caring are the ones we remember forever. 🙂

  5. Jane Sturgeon

    What a lovely story and I can feel your heart and your lovely Mum’s in this. I have often found that life’s greatest gifts have come from the harshest cracks..they can let more light in. My Great Granny used to tell a story of their poorest Christmas and how it was the one her family remembered as their best. The pennies were so short she boiled the soap pieces down to make a bar to last. They each made their presents for each other and decorated their home with home made goodies. They remember the love and laughter best of all. Much ❤ flowing to you all, with hugs ❤ xXx

    • Your words are so wonderful, Jane, especially about life’s greatest gifts “coming from the harshest cracks…they let more light in.” So true. And I love the story about your great-grandmother boiling the soap pieces down to make a bar of soap! Something special and beautiful comes with gifts from the heart instead of the wallet. Thank you, dear Jane. ❤

  6. What a wonderful story, Marylin. I can see why your mother loved it so. Anna taught your class a valuable lesson. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we can buy, it’s about the time we can share with our loved ones. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hugs to your beautiful mother. xo

  7. Don

    What an amazing story, Marylin. Funny how when your situation is diminished something far better arises out of it. I suppose it’s the challenge that presents itself in that curtailed kind of context. I wonder what happened to Anna? Did she go on and become a Writer?

    • The Writing To Publish Class I taught was for high school seniors only, Don. Anna’s “The Best Worst Christmas Ever” was her first sale, and it gave her confidence to write, write, write and submit like crazy. She went to community college the next year and stopped by frequently to talk. But she left after one semester when her dad got a good job opportunity elsewhere. After that we lost contact, but I have no doubt that she’s still making the best of every situation in her life…and probably writing about it, too! 😉

  8. Nancy Parker Brummett

    So heartwarming and humbling, Marylin. Thank you.

  9. This is Good Will Hunting in the finest sense of the word.

    I am thankful for this inspiring story and the warm heart that motivated telling it here. You have good juju, Marylin!

  10. Keeta

    The story touched my heart and caused me to stop and truly think about what is really important. 💝💝

    • Ah, thank you, Keeta. Wherever Anna is now after all these years, I have a feeling that she’s still making the most of what life gives her and has a strong sense of what is truly important. ❤

  11. I think I’ll opt for a $2 Christmas. Beautiful. Love the Anna story. The Anna (real name) in my life is going through similar but different turmoil as a family. Today her father could use prayers, in the hospital with a severe leg infection.

  12. Beautiful story Marylin. I might just ‘borrow’ it to include in my Christmas Day homily.
    Thank for sharing this Christmas treasure

  13. What a beautiful story Marylin. I think I may borrow it to include in my Christmas Day homily. Thanks for sharing this Christmas treasure

  14. In this day and age, of digital inaptness. Where importance is measured not on merit but on how fast something can go ‘Viral’. Where a ‘tweet’ is bait to gain followers. Where publishing is an Instagram.

    The message here. The sediment expressed. Is that of the storyteller telling their story ‘as is, where is’; a phrase I’ve stolen from a real estate ad which indicates the structure needs some ‘care and vision’ to be restored. But in writing, it has become apparent to me, honesty and more importantly conviction the hallmark of laying it out for others. Write it down and it will live for ever. Weaving its way through the lives, thoughts and values, of those whom read it. Touching, inspiring in inconceivable ways. Anna’s story, the story she wrote, the story on this very page, is timeless. It doesn’t viral is spirals -outward.

    Thank you Marylin, this was warming as is the sight of the Migration of the Snowy Butterfly which is occurring outside my window right now.
    Environment Canada has coldly referred to it as a ‘SIGNIFICANT WINTER WEATHER EVENT’.

    Though the colloquial, dim witted Old Frozen Fart (referring to myself), would say, “it’s snowing like the dickens, which like this post has opened up a latent, long-over-due Christmas-like spiritual event -to look for the good even in the most dismal of time’.

    So if am not around in the future, I’ll get this in early, “Merry Christmas and shtufffs, Marylin”.

  15. Claudia

    So good for me to find today. First of all I’m just glad to be reading again. Home from massive surgery and grateful to be here for Christmas coming!!!

    • I am so grateful that you’re doing well, Claudia, and I’m glad you enjoyed Anna’s story. Blessings on you as you heal, and may your Christmas be warm and full of love. I’ve sent you a private email. ❤

  16. What a great story Marylin, it does show that you can create wonder out of almost nothing.

    • It truly does teach us, Andrea. What had begun as sad fears for Anna became a joyous use of her talents and creativity…and became her first published story. I like Jane’s comment about how sometimes the deepest cracks in our lives actually let in the most light.

  17. What a lovely story, Marylin. Thanks for sharing!

  18. You’re very welcome, Merril. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  19. Oh Marylin! That is such a beautiful story, so filled with hope, joy, laughter, and love. So very inspiring! XO

  20. This is such a heart warming, wonderful story for Christmas, Marylin. And good on Anna for her perseverance with her story…but of course, that may well have something to do with her encouraging teacher…😉

    • I know you’ve had similar successes with your students in the UK, Jenny. Anna’s perseverance was an inspiration to all the students in the writing class, especially her attitude that after all the really difficult things that had happened to her, having her story rejected by a magazine wasn’t that scary. But when they did buy it, Anna was thrilled, and from then on she had a new hope and confidence. I know that’s something you and I both want for our students. 😉

  21. juliabarrett

    This is beautiful, Marylin. It’s a real true Christmas story.

  22. How lovely that such a ‘poor’ Christmas turned into something rich and beautiful. A bit like the original Christmas story. 🙂 Anna’s Christmas story reminded me of the Christmas story in Five Little Peppers by Margaret Sidney.

  23. Glee

    What an eye opener and reminder of how fortunate so many of us are. Thanks so much for sharing Anna’s story!

    • We are fortunate, Glee. Little Jameson–and his parents and his Grandma Glee–are all still in my prayers. And with our big extended family, I’m sure the prayers abound. When Jameson is older and up and running, he and all his wonderful cousins can have a scavenger hunt to find their hidden presents.
      Bless you and all your darling grandchildren, dear Glee. Love, Marylin

    • We received your wonderful family picture Christmas card, Glee. It’s always special, funny, and inspiring. Our prayers continue for Jameson.

  24. Jim

    I remember when you told Molly and me about “Anna’s” story and her subsequent publication. Truly heartwarming and a perfect blog idea for the season. Leave it to Mary to use the idea to help a friend. ❤

    I remember one Christmas when I was six years old. It might fit your topic a little bit. I asked for a dog for Christmas. It was only the day after Thanksgiving. I wanted my parents to have a lot time to make arrangements with Santa. (Yep, I still believed. Kids were a lot more naive in those days. We didn't have GOOGLE or FACEBOOK to tell us what was what.) 🙂

    I pleaded my case along the lines of, "Every boy needs a dog for a best friend like the boy on that TV show LASSIE." I was told quite simply that I was too young to take care of a dog and that the boy's collie on TV had a whole farm on which to run around. We lived in the city and there would be no dog. I mustered the courage to counter with, "I already asked Santa . . .," so Mom and Dad would know I had gone over their heads. They must have known that was a little boy lie because Santa and his numerous "look-alike helpers" hadn't been in any of the stores yet..

    I was heartbroken. They let me wallow in gloom for days! This would be the worst Christmas ever. I didn't want anything else, not even my two front teeth, which I didn't have either.

    Then we came home from eating dinner out one evening a few days before Christmas. There was an envelope under the doormat. It said, "To Jimmy from Santa." I opened it and my sis helped me read it. It was a type-written Christmas card which said my mom and dad would help Santa out this Christmas because he was sooooo busy. Santa had asked them to help me get my Christmas dog, and yes, Santa promised my dog would be a collie. And so she was. It was the best Christmas ever could be! Woof-woof! ❤

  25. And Bootie was an amazing dog. I remember the stories about how she stayed right with you when you went out on your bike, and she was always with you except when you were at school.
    And when you were away at college, your dad sat up with Bootie all night when she died. And then, you stayed with my dog Paige on the day she died, which I was at school coaching Mock Trial. You stepped up and did for us what your dad did for you. Such amazing care and love you and your dad showed for your families. Thank you, honey. ❤ ❤ ❤

  26. What a delightful story dear Marylin…one we all need to hold in our hearts year round for those two very important lessons it teaches. It seems to me that you and Anna blessed one another in ways you could not have imagined when you assigned her that writing prompt 🙂 ❤

    • Thank you, Sherri. I taught high school for 30 years, and only a handful of students gave me nightmares. Most were amazing teens, and yes, they taught me as much as I taught them. Anna was one of them, and her story made a difference in so many lives. ❤ ❤

      • Merry Christmas to you dear Marylin, and to your dear mom and family. I will be signing off to get ready for my boys arriving this week, but I wanted to pop over and send you lots of love and hugs for Christmas and the New Year, a time filled with joy, love and laughter. Happy, safe travels wherever you go my dear friend, and I look forward very much to catching up with you in 2017 🙂 ❤ xoxo

  27. Hi Marylin!

    What a beautiful and touching story. I just love it!

    Thanks for sharing. I’m sure, I will share it as well many many times. Have blessed Christmas time and lots of hugs to you, Ilka

  28. Bob Cowin

    Thank you for this moment i was able to spend with you reading your story. Merry Christmas

  29. Thank you for sharing this wonderful Christmas story about a Christmas story. Perfect for right now!!

  30. jakesprinter


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