I have four siblings and, between all of us, the number of
nieces and nephews were rapidly proliferating. While we all had jobs, we found
ourselves going broke buying presents for everyone during the holidays.
After a particularly well-gifted Christmas morning,
tip-toeing through the mountains of crumpled wrapping paper, my sister sensibly suggested instituting a grab bag for the adults.
It worked with her husband’s large family, she contended, so we ought to
And we did. That next year, after the Thanksgiving dishes
were cleaned and put away, I passed out little pieces of scrap paper and pens
to the adults still seated around my dining room table. My sister, a former
teacher, dictated the instructions as if she were addressing her class.
“Write your name at the top, list three gift ideas, then
fold up the piece of paper and pop it in the hat.” She held out an old fedora
I had purchased way back when I was going through an Annie Hall phase.
After agreeing to $30 per person, I looked at my list and sighed. Only one item survived the cut, but an iron for Christmas? Really?
We all sat, pens in hand, and pondered our wish lists. While some started scribbling right away, I
Something just for
me? Really? Not for the kids?
This wasn’t going to be easy.
I thought of my iron, the one with only two settings: cold
There. I had one item. Now, I just needed two more. Think, think, think …
Why was this so hard? If I ever needed something for
myself, I’d just get it. The nice-to-haves were always too impractical or too
One frivolous idea, though, did spring to mind. Feeling
deliciously decadent, I wrote, “A day at the spa.”
For a moment, I envisioned being completely pampered, shut
off from the world only to emerge hours later way newly coiffed and manicured.
Ha, ha! I was starting to get the hang of this whole grab bag
thing. OK, two down, one to go. Just as I was about to write, “diamond stud
earrings,” my sister spoke again.
“Pens down. I totally forgot. We have to set a limit.”
Everyone’s heads popped up.
After agreeing to $30 per person, I looked at my
list and sighed. Only one item survived the cut, but an iron for Christmas? Really?
At the time, it seemed like a good idea.
Reluctantly, I crossed out “a day at the spa”. Not wanting
to cave entirely to practicality, I added a second item to my list, a year’s
worth of chocolate, then finally, a third—my favorite bubble bath and a set
When Christmas morning arrived, we gathered at my sister’s
house for brunch and the much-anticipated gift exchange. With the adults seated around the tree, she selected
the gift for her recipient, my brother, and placed it in his lap. After opening
it, declaring his excitement over receiving a new travel mug and a gift card to
his favorite coffee establishment, he handed his recipient their gift, and so it
went until it was my turn.
My niece sprang up from her seat, and with a devilish look in
her eye, left the room momentarily and returned with a tower of small,
individually wrapped boxes and placed it at my feet.
“A year’s worth of chocolate,” she exclaimed.
Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, you don’t know me very well. I’d have this new loot polished off
well before the year was over. Second, be
careful what you wish for. I needed that much chocolate like I needed another fruitcake.
In the years that have followed, we have continued with the
gift exchange, varying the amounts by everyone’s financial capabilities. And my
requests have also varied between practical (a new lunch bag for work), indulgent
(gift card for an expensive salon) and benevolent (a donation to a local
homeless shelter). What hasn’t changed
is the fact that our tradition of targeted giving far exceeds our ability
to gift an entire crowd—and is still a very good idea.