Steamboat Springs Forget the in-laws, last-minute shopping and stress of frothing your meringue to a pointed whip. The real test of the holidays is surviving the white elephant gift exchange.
While music teacher Donald Gardner championed two front teeth in his holiday classic, you usually walk home with weirder wares than that. This season, it was a gun case that we walked away with after one of the whackier white elephant weeks we’ve endured in years.
For those not familiar with this ritual that has trumpeted its way into holiday parties nationwide, the term purportedly comes from sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs as a sign of power. Whenever someone received one as a gift, it was a blessing and a curse — a sign of the monarch's favor but expensive to maintain. Businessman Ezra Cornell brainstormed the gift-exchange concept in 1828. The time-honored gist: Each participant supplies a gift and then draws a number determining the picking order. After the first person opens a gift, the next person can steal the gift or choose a different one.
This year, we had two of the junk-accumulating affairs back to back, barely leaving us time to shelf the first fruits before carting home more clutter.
The first was at a friend’s Christmas Eve party, involving store-bought presents with a monetary cap. While this ensures a level playing field, it also ensures a few items that belong on the Island of Misfit Toys. After the gifts were delivered, my daughters stole presents and the show. After a 15-year-old boy named Cash ended up with an M&M dispenser, Casey, 10, eyed it wistfully but didn’t want to hurt his feelings by stealing it. After some reassuring, she mustered up the courage and repo’d it.
Casey’s teenage sister, Brooke, had no such qualms, promptly stealing Casey’s hard-won pride and joy to a chorus of boos. Justice prevailed when a downtrodden Casey opened another present to find a One Direction calendar, featuring 12 floppy-haired months of Brooke’s favorite band. “Oh yeah, buyah!” she flaunted in Brooke’s direction, vindicating her sibling’s M&M malfeasance. The spirit of Christmas was renewed later that evening when Brooke, on her own accord, proceeded to wrap the M&M dispenser to give back to a heartbroken Casey.
The next night had even more drama, perhaps because of its caveat requiring the gift to come from your home. Choosing one of the most immaculately wrapped presents of the lot, Casey opened it to find a framed, smiling photo of the giver, teenage Koby, straight from his family’s photo wall. Her rejection was palpable.
Feeling pity, I sacrificed my own chance at stardom by stealing Koby’s beaming picture, leaving Casey free to choose the last gift from the pile. Inside was a card reading “Door No. 1!” With that, the host and a sturdy friend disappeared down a hallway and returned minutes later rolling in a floor-to-ceiling, glass-windowed, wooden gun case. While perfect, perhaps, for the Nerf gun Casey opened that morning, it wasn’t perfect for our freshly decluttered household.
I, meanwhile, left with Koby’s pearly whites, Brooke a brownie-making pan and my wife a fax machine that even LIFT-UP shunned. (As we drove home, Casey asked, “What’s a facts machine, anyway?)
This gift of a game from the monarchs left us with a new appreciation of a tradition that, if you can overlook the clutter it creates and moral compass it steers astray, actually does keep the spirit of Christmas alive — even if your present facilitates hunting reindeer.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-870-1376 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatToday.com