Monday, December 31, 2012


Here it is the last night of the year, and all the now-done-Christmas-hubbub had me thinking about gifts.  A story came to mind.

Some years ago, during an uncharacteristically well-behaved period in my life, I was involved in a women's group.  Each Christmas, an older lady I'll call Joan would invite the whole group over to her house for a Christmas party.  The highlight of the party was a sort of "Dirty Santa" game, except that Joan provided all the gifts. 

Joan loved to shop.  She especially loved to bargain shop, and so, throughout the year, whenever she'd see some gifty-type item that was ridiculously discounted, she'd buy it and store it away for her Dirty Santa Party.   Some of the gifts were cool, no matter who got them, like a fancily wrapped "tower" of chocolate candy, or a big set of assorted-color dish towels.  Some were great, but only if you were into things like that--like a fondue pot complete with little forks and plates or an electric coffee grinder.  Some were perhaps a bit less impressive, like a set of kitschy little egg dishes for soft-boiled eggs or a little gadget for taking the tops off of strawberries along with a small serving bowl festooned with painted strawberries.  And truthfully, some were a bit tacky.  The gifts ran the gamut.

Joan must have spent days wrapping all the gifts with beautiful wrappings, ribbons, bows, and little charms and things on them, and the table itself was decorated to the nines, with greenery and big fluffy bows and artificial snow and lights and ornaments. The gift table at Joan's party was like the Christmas fantasy-land around Santa's throne in a department store of old. 

The rules of the game were simple.  Everyone drew a number.  The person who drew number one would make the first selection from the wondrous gift table piled high with packages.  The next person would likewise pick a package and then decide whether to keep her gift or trade it for the gift of number one.  This would continue through all the women at the party, with each person able to keep their gift or forcibly trade it for any other gift that had been opened.  Then the victim of that forced trade got to keep that gift or make one forced trade of any opened gift except the one she'd just lost.  The only limitation was that after the same gift had been taken three times, it stayed put.  And the final trade fell to number one, who could open the one last unclaimed gift, or trade for anything in the room that hadn't been traded three times already, or keep the gift she already had. 

Believe it or not, this pretty large group of pretty non-homogenous ladies were really into this game.  People staked out gifts they wanted, and tried to devise strategies to get them.  Sometimes it was by "talking up" something they'd gotten in the hopes that someone would take it and they'd get a shot at the zen candle garden or whatever it was they had their eye on.  Sometimes, especially as the night wore on, it was by out and out bribery.  By the time you got to thirty-five or forty gifts, the trading activity was spirited.   Wine served to most of the ladies made the competition both more fierce and more humorous as the night wore on.

Now, I'm not much on receiving Christmas gifts.  At least since turning about 10, I've always enjoyed giving presents more than getting them.  And I'm even less into party games.  So the Dirty Santa game at Joan's was usually something I watched in bemusement more than having any goal of "winning."  I came away from those games at different times with a set of vanilla bath stuff , a grouping of  too-sweet-scented candles,  and once, a gadget for slicing boiled eggs.  Meh.

But one time, I happened into a real find.   I had been the number one gift-picker.  I don't remember what my first gift was, but it was something good, and I lost it promptly.  I had a couple more through the evening, but surprisingly ended with quite a nice thing--a big pasta bowl with very pretty Tuscan-looking designs on it.  People with lesser gifts were hooting that I should trade with them.  One lady who had a Tuscan-themed kitchen was offering unauthorized bonuses, like chocolate, if I'd trade her for a mini-food-processor.  I was considering that, and thinking about trading for a stuffed figure that danced and played Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, which I knew my mother-in-law would love, and then I looked over at the Last Gift.  It was gorgeously wrapped, and quite large.  It could be one of those chocolate towers, and it really was intriguing.   I felt daring.  I traded for it.  Joan's face fell.  

As the lady with the Tuscan kitchen booed loudly and then started to negotiate animatedly with Joan for the bowl,  I tore off the paper and opened the box.  Inside was a cookie jar shaped like a chubby black and white cow, seated erect like a dog begging, with all four hooves and a prominent pink udder molded and painted on the front, a tail on the back.  There was a collective gasp from the ladies, who thought I had just really gotten the shaft--a beautiful Tuscan pasta bowl traded away for a tacky cow cookie jar.

But I'm not really the Tuscan kind, and the fat little bovine whose head came off to reveal the treasure inside really spoke to me.  I liked that cow.  I took her home and she became a fixture in our kitchen.   She became known as Clovis, the cookie cow.  I even bought other tacky cow-themed kitchen stuff like dish towels with Bossies grazing on green, green grass and cow-spotted borders, so Clovis would feel at home.  I was fully aware the cows were tacky, but I didn't care, my husband didn't mind, and my girls were little and loved that cow, knowing she would have a treat for them, always.   Clovis was our cookie-bearing friend, well-used for years until an unfortunate accident shattered her all over the floor of a subsequent kitchen she adorned.

So, a long story to close out what has seemed like a very long year.  We've been through it in spades in 2012.  Economic doomsaying, mass shootings, elections, fiscal cliffs, money-laundering, rate-fixing, and now surviving the "end of the world."  Wow.  There's a lot that needs handled, dealt with, changed, and fixed in this world of ours--and dammit, the end of the world didn't take us off the hook for it.  So, you ask, what's the point this New Year's Eve? 

Just this:  some gifts are fancy; some gifts are plain; some are easily recognized as valuable; and  some are pretty darn weird and might only be appreciated by the person to whom fate grants them--like my cookie cow.  We all have a place and a role to play in addressing the challenges that will come in this, "the year after the end of the world."   Each of us has unique gifts that will help us to do that, in large ways or small.  And each of our gifts will only be put to their best use by the one person in the world who's wound up with them.  Here's hoping that we each see and appreciate our gifts--even the weird ones--that we embrace them, develop them, and use them fully, uniquely, and with joy to make our own part of the world a better place this coming year.   God knows it needs to be a better place.

Happy New Year.

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