What do a Japanese calendar with images of the Buddha, a pink hippopotamus Christmas tree ornament, a bumping and grinding Santa Claus, and an out-of-date box of frozen cookie dough have in common? Not much, except that they were presents people gave and received last night at our friends’ annual holiday gag gift exchange. This was the fourth time we’d gone to this party and this year, besides laughing until I got hoarse, I enjoyed watching people’s reactions as they opened the presents they chose.
First, only about two-thirds of the guests bring a totally unusable and ugly gift and most of these are raunchy — the Santa G-string and Santa condom holder are two examples. Newcomers are more likely to bring something semi-decent, since they don’t have previous experience with this event and don’t appreciate how low the standards are set. The rest of the gifts last night ranged from the exceptionally nice (an unopened, unused Backgammon game), to the mundane (a box of crackers, which, compared to other gifts was considered by the recipient to be a blessing), to the cheesy (a bar of soap shaped like dog poo.)
What I concluded was that even when we all know ahead of time that the gift we open will likely be awful or, at the very least, something we don’t want, we still feel disappointed when we see what’s inside our package. We laugh because that’s expected, but we also whine, try to find out who the gift giver was so we can unleash a personal attack, and look for ways to unload it on someone else. It’s all in fun, but I also think we are making a statement about the American ethos. We are so hopeful that even when we know the odds are stacked against us, we think we will be the one exception, we will be a winner. The gag gift party reminds us that we can’t always win, that we’ll get over it when we don’t, and that we have a chance to win something that is not completely disgusting next year.
This is why the gag gift exchange benefits from the trading game we used to play in my office. My New England cousins call it “Keep or Trade.” All the participants draw numbers. Person #1 gets to choose a gift. Person #2 can choose a gift or steal the gift opened by #1. If #1 is robbed, he opens another gift. Person #3 can steal either gift, or open one from under the tree. It’s beneficial to have the highest number. Some people go through the numbers twice. My sister in law plays a version in which no stealing is allowed in round one, but there is a third round. Ho Ho Ho.
We did do that, which is why I ended up with something good, but lots of people still end up disappointed. Truth be known, everybody wants to get something nice.