Christmas Morning: The presents are all piled in the middle of the floor. Everyone has their number. The anticipation is building.
“Wait,” my oldest brother yells. “Let’s go over the rules.”
His wife stands close by nodding with a passive “just wait until I am aggressive” smile. Then my other brother jumps in. “I googled it and the way we have been playing each year is wrong. The first person gets to go last but can only steal once.” Here we go. Christmas hell has begun.
What is supposed to be a time of spirited giving and receiving becomes a full-on Game of Gifts among my three brothers, their wives, and my husband and I. In this annual bout, which we call Chinese Christmas but is also known as Yankee Swap or White Elephant, secret spousal alliances have been forged and the band of brothers are in full takeover mode. With eyes shifting among the opponents in the room, the first person grabs a gift.
White Elephant: The Christmas Morning Revenge
All around the younger generations—our children and even now some grandchildren—sit giggling, whispering, and waiting for that first present to be unwrapped. It is any child’s guess if there will be a joyful noise or defeated slump. No one has more fun watching the “Back to the Future” state of sibling rivalry than the younger generations as the presents are picked and the gifts revealed. “I’ll take that,” my sister-in-law declares gloatingly as she steals the pocket knife that also serves as brass knuckles from my brother who just knew it was safe in his grips.
The added bonus for all spectators and participants is at least one sibling or spouse going silent with barely audible mutterings of “cheater, didn’t spend enough and never playing again.”
Then my oldest brother reminds my middle brother, “Didn’t you take my first baseball glove when I was 10 years old and you put it in your pile of gifts from Santa Claus? Now I am getting you back,” as he takes a large box of gun shells. The added bonus for all spectators and participants is at least one sibling or spouse going silent with barely audible mutterings of “cheater, didn’t spend enough and never playing again.” Typically, it’s my one sister-in-law who has always struggled with fitting into our family who mutters the loudest.
Once it is all over, a few mediators emerge like my kind-hearted 21-year-old niece, who assures me, “I am sure you can put that somewhere on your kitchen cabinet,” referring to a sealed bottle of dark-colored oil with aged vegetables floating inside. Or my matter-of-fact nephew, who excitedly tells my bewildered brother, “I love this ‘As Seen on TV’ stuff,” as he begins using the Ultimate Booty Max exercise bands.
And So This is Christmas?
So the rules in my family—which are often debated—go like this: Everyone brings one gift—with the maximum amount of $30 to spend set beforehand. After drawing numbers to determine the order of opening, each player can either select a wrapped gift from the pile, or steal a gift from someone who has opened one before them.
But just as Christmas comes around every year, the decision on whether to continue this way of giving or to try something different comes around too. So, about the same time as “White Christmas” hits the radio waves, I start polling people while waiting for my Spiced Pumpkin Latte at Starbucks or while hanging with the ladies before a boot camp class. “Sooo, what do you do for exchanging Christmas gifts in your family?” Usually the response is “we draw names” or we do “an exchange.”
My matter-of-fact nephew tells my bewildered brother, “I love this ‘As Seen on TV’ stuff,” as he begins using the Ultimate Booty Max exercise bands.
But this year, I also took my inquiry to the place I knew I would get the most answers with the most honesty. I polled my friends on Facebook. With a little name tagging and wine-induced midnight begging, the votes and comments started coming in. The results of my unofficial poll were 58 percent of my friends draw names and the other 42 percent engage in a swap/exchange. Although these are the two main ways people shift their gift giving later in life, there are some variations.
You Think You Can Do It Better?
My friend Leslie Southard prefers the exchange game “because at least you have a chance of swapping out the set of Hickory Farms Sausage Logs.” If your gift is a bust in a name-drawing situation, you have to pretend you like it—all the while you’re thinking of how you can regift it later.
One friend prefers the exchange game “because at least you have a chance of swapping out the set of Hickory Farms Sausage Logs.”
But sometimes gifts are so bad, they’re not even re-giftable. At one Christmas celebration with her in-laws, a friend received a gift-wrapped cube from her husband’s grandmother, who had drawn her name. When she opened it, she found only a box of Kleenex—nothing else. No companion piece like a hand-crocheted tissue box cover. “I tried to act happy,” she says. “And later that night, when my husband and I were talking about the day, we cracked up so hard about my Kleenex box that I seriously peed my pants. So the tissue came in handy after all.”
Ellyn Reeder reports that every different family gathering at Christmas has its own gift-giving style. “I now have an app on my phone to keep up with it all,” she jokes. “At family gathering two, for instance, the kids draw names and the adults play a gift exchange. At family gathering three, only the kids exchange. At family gathering seven, only the grandparents get presents. Aren’t blended families fun?”
Another friend said this: “One part of the family draws names. At another gathering we place money we would have spent on presents in a box under the tree and then gives that away to those in need.”
Boredom Should Not be a Tradition
Then there are the folks who still hold out for the old traditional form of gift giving like in Mary Alexander’s family, “Everybody gets a present from everyone.”
I must admit, it is a round of giving so excruciatingly slow that even Botox can’t paralyze my “enough already” facial expressions.
You want to know how that works? Just come to my in-laws’ house on Christmas night. Each family member is distributed his or her gifts in a pile. Then, each person opens one gift at a time while everyone watches, and around and around it goes. I don’t measure the process in time just in glasses of wine sometimes bottles. I must admit, it is a round of giving so excruciatingly slow that even Botox can’t paralyze my “enough already” facial expressions.
That episode always makes me love the high drama and unpredictability of my own family’s celebration though. Yes, people sometimes get mad or hurt in our Christmas thunderdome of steals and deals, but that is no different than in our everyday lives. (We all live in the same hometown.) But what happens in that living room every Christmas among the discarded bows and ripped wrapping paper is about so much more than the gifts. It is about the exchange. The exchange of fun, laughter, and love. And I wouldn’t swap that for anything in the world.