I come from a family of gift givers. But before you think that this is going to be a gift-of-the-magi, heart-warming tale of truly meaningful gifts, I should let you know that this is not the case. My family are no ordinary gift-givers. They are twisted gift givers. And that requires some explanation.
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
The year is 1970-something. A family gathers around the Christmas tree in a standard mid-western suburb – two daughters, two parents, and a beloved grandmother (with a slightly neurotic dog watching on from the outskirts). The youngest granddaughter delightfully hands her grandmother a beautifully wrapped present, smiling with anticipation as she opens it. The grandmother peels back the wrapping paper, opens the box and finds a note. A note that reads “better luck next year.” Meanwhile, the girl is doubled over in fits of laughter. “It’s a better-luck-next-year-box!” she squeals as her eyes begin to water from the laughter. The rest of the family shakes their heads, but can’t help but join in the contagious laughter.
Fast forward a few years later to the late 1970s. The same granddaughter, a few years older, hands her grandmother yet another carefully wrapped package. This time, her eyes are already dancing with what she knows is inside. The grandmother opens the package to discover a head of cabbage, with a smiley face hand-drawn on the top. “It’s a Cabbage Patch Kid!” the granddaughter announces, barely catching her breath to spit out the words.
Zoom out and back down to Western New York. It’s now late 1960s and a small boy is sitting around his Christmas tree, trying to crowd out his three sisters as his parents eagerly watch him open his presents. He comes across a small package from “Uncle Jack” the family dentist. He opens it. It’s an electric toothbrush. “How thoughtful” he muses, and goes on to open his other toys. Several weeks later, at the dentist, he remembers the thoughtful gift, and offers his thanks to Uncle Jack. The doctor, however, is mystified. He gave no such gift. The light dawns on the young boy. His parents gave him the toothbrush, but claimed it was someone the dentist – what a bizarre way to give a gift!
This is my legacy. These are my people.
At Christmas each year, my sister and I find presents under our tree from figures like Michelle Obama, Steve Jobs, and Martha Stewart. There are hand-wrapped gifts from local friends and teachers – Mrs. Kinat, Jimmy C, Rich. These are all my father’s doing. Yet every year, without fail, as we go to open the present from our unknowing benefactor, my father remarks, with great surprise, “that was so nice of them to think of you!” Now I should tell you, since the dentist-toothbrush incident that set this whole tradition off, back when it was my grandfather who loved this game, the references have become more obscure. The gift from Michelle Obama could be a DC road map, or tickets to Wolf Trap, or perhaps an ornament of the White House. Names like “Rich”? Watch out. It could be a gardening item, from our neighborhood nursery worker. Or, it could be that “Rich” is the producer of an obscure Hollywood musical that dad found on DVD. You have to stay on your toes. We open the gift, and smile, and also offer our thanks to Martha Stewart, while my dad sits on the floor with a broad grin.
A few days after this present-opening, we will travel to the opposite end of the state to celebrate Christmas with my mom’s side of the family. My aunt is queen of the “giggle gift”. After my great-grandmother passed away, my aunt found a willing recipient for her gifts in my father. To be fair, I believe that the history of their gift-giving extends back nearly to their first meeting.
The way I’ve heard it told, it all started on a family vacation to Long Island. On that fateful beach, my father and my aunt were both reading The Parsifal Mosaic, a spy book by Robert Ludlam, author of the “Bourne” trilogy. Both of them took great pleasure in reading ahead of the other and trying to spoil cliff hangers and even the ending of the book. While in Long Island, the first Farm Aid concert was taking place in Illinois. One evening, the evening news was on, showing coverage of the concert. For reasons that we may never know, the camera man zoomed in on a pile of trash littering the lawn and focused on an unopened bag of Stella D’Oro bread sticks. My father and my aunt, both with the same quirky sense of humor, were both tirelessly amused at the type of person that would choose to bring bread sticks to a live, outdoor concert. The following December, neatly wrapped under the tree, was a copy of the Parsifal Mosaic, given from my father to my aunt, feigning disbelief that she had already read the given gift. In a smaller package was a single bread stick, with a red ribbon tied around the middle; it had been made into an ornament, and hangs on our Christmas tree still. Thus began the extended tradition of the giggle gift.
The best “giggle gifts” are those that require months of planning, where the giver begins to laugh at the mere idea of the gift being opened. One year, my aunt found a small box that when turned on, shakes around while a dismembered voice yells “help! help! get me out of here!” The next year, my family filmed a video of various family members trapped in small spaces, while the box rattled off-screen, yelling its petitions to be released. That Christmas, my aunt opened a package with an unlabeled video tape in it. We then watched the shakily-made home video which could barely be heard over our laughter.
A few years later, my aunt and her own youngest daughter (who has inherited this twisted gift) had heard a song on the radio to the tune of “Do you hear what I hear?” titled, “Didn’t I get this last year?”. The song details a list of horrible presents that the recipient had already received in previous years. Out doing themselves, my aunt and cousin wrapped up each of these items (including an ugly tie, a plant in a mayonnaise jar and some “tiny BVDs”) and had my father open each subsequent gift as the song blared through my grandfather’s speakers. My dad, ever the willing participant, proceeded to act out each event as described in the song. My family was literally weeping. We have issues. Yet these are the memories of Christmas that have been passed down, and relived in my own family. I have vague memories of getting our first computer, and other wonderful gifts from my parents, but the images that stick in my head are the ones that involve innocent laughter. These moments of pure joy capture the spirit of Christmas in a way that regular gifts just seem to miss.
In spite of these rather unusual patterns of gift-giving, I think that in a strange way, they reflect the events of the first Christmas.
Every Christmas, we wait. We start counting down the days with child-like wonder, waiting for December 25th to finally arrive. We shake the packages, snoop around the house, and try to figure out what our gifts are going to be, even with misleading gift tags. Before the first Christmas, a nation had been waiting for generations; waiting for One who had been promised to deliver them from slavery and oppression, and turn them into a nation that was respected instead of defeated.
People were expecting a gift to come in nice wrapping, carefully packaged, with clear labels to let them know that this was what they were waiting for. Instead, they got a baby, born to a teenage mom from an obscure village; born next to cattle, who spent the first night of his life not in a carefully built, lovingly adorned crib, but in a feeding trough, surrounded by hay. The Gift was not what was anticipated. But, as our giggle gifts dimly reflect, sometimes what was not asked for, not anticipated, is the gift that brings us the most joy; that we remember for years to come; that we pass down through the generations.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2