Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Holidays 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

Many of us have at least one gift we can recall receiving that has a very special meaning. But among a few local families, those kinds of gifts are tradition.

With 139 first cousins — her mom was one of 17 siblings — Sarah Gano might not have expected Christmas gifts from her grandparents. But every year since she was born until 2007, Gano received a pewter plate with a Christmas theme gifted by them. Her three complete collections of 24 plates are proudly displayed year-round in her Traverse City’s basement.

“We lugged the box of Christmas plates everywhere, from house to house,” said Gano, a stay-at-home mother of two from Traverse City. “When we finally got our home and decided where to put them, it was really exciting for me. When I see them, I just smile.”

In fact, every year her grandparents found a gift for each grandchild to unwrap. All the girls received plates, while the boys received mugs, until the year the company discontinued them. Then Gano’s grandfather contacted the company and explained he had 70 boys waiting to unwrap a mug for Christmas. For the following few years, he designed the mugs himself, which the company produced for him to purchase for his family. Gano has two of those, which were given to her husband when the couple was dating.

She said she was surprised when he was given the special gift for the first time.

“It definitely felt like he is a part of the family,” she said, remembering when she knew her family had accepted him.

In Rachel White’s large extended family of 25 cousins the annual gift exchange evokes warm, sentimental feelings, but what makes the exchange special is that the gifts are all well thought out and take lots of time to put together.

“My cousin made a nativity scene, and every year I pull it out and think of Heidi,” said White, a freelance writer from Traverse City. The creche is among her favorite gifts from the annual family exchange.

Lilly Bonham echoed the same sentiment about a certain wooden decoration now in her family’s collection.

“When they come out at my mom’s house it just feels like home,” said Bonham, White’s cousin, who lives in Hamtramck.

White’s aunt, who lives nearby, recalls a gift she gave that had special meaning.

“My brother loves to fish, so my husband and I made a table,” said Marybeth Bonham. “Between the plexiglass and wood was a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign.”

The guidelines are simple: the family holds a party every year around the holidays just for this tradition. Members exchange a gift with the person whose name they drew the year before and also learn who they will be making a gift for the following year.

“It started as something like buying a wreath and hot-gluing pineapples on it,” said White, but in the 20 years since, the exchange has taken on much more meaning.

She points out that you don’t need to be crafty to make a gift. One year all the kids went to a pottery class and made mugs for their exchange.

The best gift Marybeth Bonham receives is not tangible and comes year after year.

She said it has been watching her parents, who have since passed, get so much joy out of seeing generations of their family put thought and effort into each gift.

“My favorite thing is watching an adult child make something for another person,” she said.

For Lilly Bonham, part of the gift is knowing her family is connected through this special tradition — something she remembers every time she looks at a wine rack handcrafted from a cherry crate.

“It’s a warm feeling,” she said.

“The things that are made you remember so much more than (those that were bought) going to the store,” said White, as she recalled another favorite gift: a family tree that was made with black and white photos. “It’s so much fun. It’s things we treasure year after year.”

This year the family is looking forward to their family meeting in Traverse City for their treasured gift exchange.

“It used to be Nana and Papa’s tradition, but to me, continuing means family is forever,” said Lilly Bonham.

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