Sold, to the Woman in the Reindeer Sweater
“It’s the thought that counts” doesn’t even come close to applying when you exchange gifts with 50+ people. You’d be lucky to remember to even purchase a gift for each person, much less have time to put any thought into it.
My mom is one of nine children, and between her and my aunts and uncles, they have 39 kids. Then we all started having kids. But Grandma and Grandpa’s house had been a zoo long before then.
We could never get an exact headcount (people have this annoying habit of wanting to grab another beer or actually enjoy themselves instead of staying put while you count them), but it usually hit upwards of 55 people. Even with a modest 40-odd guests, chaos ensued.
The adults used to do a Secret Santa, where Grandma took gift ideas from everyone and called up everyone else to tell them what to buy. She was essentially an unpaid central clearinghouse for the exchange of money in the form of gifts that would still likely be returned.
She put an end to that, citing that her time was better spent playing bingo at church. No one protested because my family loves bingo. But what would we do instead?
First, we tried Rob Your Neighbor. Everyone picked a gently used object from their house and wrapped it up. Then we drew numbers to see who got to pick first from the steaming pile of crap under the tree. The subsequent person could either steal your crappy gift or pick a new gift they hoped would be less crappy.
They never were. My family clearly played fast and loose with the definition of “gently used.” Beer steins with broken wooden handles, embroidered throw pillows with sayings like “If you want breakfast in bed, best sleep in the kitchen”, and soap dispensers adorned with a skunk were among the pickings.
We decided to up the ante. You had to buy a shiny new gift. Minimum price: $10.
That helped, but people tended to buy stuff they wanted for themselves, or stuff that was just weird. Christmas of ’07 was The War of the Travel Wrench Set. I couldn’t imagine one person wanting a miniature wrench set that badly, much less half my family. But that thing got robbed so many times we had to institute a new rule that the same gift could only be stolen three times. Then the rest of the game was full of floral-scented candles and Christmas tea towels that didn’t even get stolen once.
We increased the limit to $20. That meant there was more expensive crap under the tree, but it was mostly still crap. With a family that big, you can’t possibly choose a gift that will appeal to everyone. Men and women, boys and girls, ages 10 to 80+… it’s inconceivable!
In Christmas of ’09 my cousin’s girlfriend brought a penguin-shaped martini shaker with a variety pack of drink mixes. I HAD TO HAVE IT. My uncle had the first turn and picked it, but didn’t seem too interested in it. He was probably hoping for a travel wrench set. My turn was next, so I promptly stole it. It’s mine, all mine! I don’t think I said that out loud, but I might have. I really wanted that martini shaker.
I was thrilled to have scored such a great gift so early on, but then realization dawned. Anyone else in the room could steal it. GAH!!! What if I got stuck with a tea towel or a candle? I needed this martini shaker. I broke out into a cold sweat every time someone took their turn. Please don’t steal it, please don’t steal it. My cousins sensed my malaise and would jokingly reach for my gift on their turns, only to go instead for a deep fryer or a huge jar of peanut M&M’s. There you go, move along. Leave me in peace with my $20 martini shaker that I could have just bought myself and saved a lot of stress and armpit stains.
Finally, after a torturous number of turns, the game was over. The martini shaker had successfully remained in my sweaty possession.
Noting my wracked nerves, my mom proposed a solution. Ever the bookworm, her idea was to conduct a book auction.
“We all bring any books we’re done with—only good condition here, folks—and we’ll auction them off,” she shouted above the din.
“What?” fifty-five family members replied.
“We can have a fun little auction, score some new books, and give the money to charity!”
“What?” we all shouted.
“I think she said something about charity?’
“No, it was about books!”
“It was about both!” I shouted. Where was my karaoke microphone when I needed it? Answer: Far, far away from my martini shaker, for the good of all those around me.
Somehow we managed to make ourselves heard, and the plan was set for the auction the following year. Christmas rolled around and everyone brought their gently used books. And Mom brought her karaoke microphone (like mother, like daughter).
“Testing, 1, 2, 3, testing,” Mom said. She was really getting a kick out of this. “First up, let’s discuss the charity. Vicki has selected Heifer International, which provides animals to impoverished villages around the world. Depending on how much money we raise tonight, we could send a goat, a sheep, or even a cow!”
“Oooh, we could send honeybees to Guatemala,” one of my cousins said, flipping through the catalogue.
“Or a llama to Bolivia,” another cousin suggested. “It says here they can make fabric from the wool and then sell the fabric to neighboring villages.”
That sounded good. The whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing.
“Look, here’s a school of fish,” my uncle chimed in.
Or give actual fish.
“I want to send a water buffalo to Nepal,” my brother, Stephen, said. Of course he would pick the biggest animal on the list.
“Well, that’s the most expensive one,” I said in my big sister voice, even though we were both grown and he towered over me, “so we’d better earn a lot at this auction!”
“OK, everyone,” Mom said. “Let the bidding begin!’
Everyone cheered. We are a seriously dorky family.
“We’ll start with a steamy romance,” Mom said. “One dollar.”
“One dollar,” Grandma bid, raising her index finger.
“Grandma, that’s your book!” I said. “That’s from the stack you donated!”
“Oh, then that’s why it looks so good! I bid one dollar on the next romance.”
“OK,” Mom said, “but let’s finish with this one first. One steamy romance, with Fabio on the cover. Do I hear one dollar?”
We managed to unload some of Grandma’s Stash O’ Trash, but as she was the most avid romance reader in the bunch, she’d donated way more than the rest of the group could take on. When the few other romance books came up for auction, she snapped them right up for a pretty penny. Which is easy when you don’t have competition, but wasn’t contributing much money to the pot.
Not to mention, attention was waning as most people weren’t interested in Fabio’s latest tryst. “I’ll buy all the remaining romances for $30,” Grandma offered.
“Sold! To the lady in the reindeer sweater,” Mom said.
The auction continued as we went through the genres.
“Here’s a sci-fi thriller about alien robots living in the center of the earth. It’s really good. Let’s go ahead and pair it with this sci-fi thriller about cyborgs.”
For every person who made a face about alien robots and cyborgs, there’d be another person waving dollar bills around, eager to find out what happened to the alien robots and cyborgs. The group’s tastes were just eclectic enough that every book sold, even if only for a dollar.
“Next up, A Man, A Can, A Plan. It says here ‘50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make’.”
Even me? I had to get my hands on that.
“Do I hear two dollars?” Mom asked.
“Why are you starting at two dollars?” I whined. “That’s not fair!”
“It’s for charity, Vicki. Do you want it or not?”
“Fine. Two dollars.”
“Three dollars,” my cousin Sarah piped up.
“Four dollars,” I said.
“Five dollars,” my brother said.
“Wait a minute, Stephen, weren’t you the one who donated that book?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said sheepishly, “but now that I see everyone else bidding on it, I realize what a good book it must be.”
“Don’t bid against me! I’m the one who carried it in from the car! I should have just taken it from the pile before donating it.”
“You mean, rob the charity?”
“Ugh, fine. Six dollars.”
“Seven dollars,” Sarah said.
“Eight.” Stephen, again.
“Nine,” I reluctantly bid.
“Ten,” Sarah offered, counting out her bills.
“Eleven,” Stephen said.
“Guys! The book only cost $17 new! Twelve,” I bid. This was getting out of hand.
“I only have ten left,” Sarah said. “I’m out.”
“Thirteen, final offer,” Stephen said.
“I’m not paying $14 for a used $17 book,” I said.
“I hardly used it,” Stephen countered.
“Then stop bidding on it!”
He just shrugged and flashed his $13 at my mom.
“Fine, I’m out. I don’t know why I wanted it anyway. They don’t even have half of those ingredients in Paris and my suitcase is already jam-packed.” Whenever I came home for the holidays, I loaded up on necessities like mac and cheese and pancake syrup, stuff that was near-impossible to find in the City of Light. I wasn’t sure this book was worth $14 and precious suitcase space.
“No more bids?” Mom asked. “OK, then. Sold, to the man who donated the book!”
“I’m not sure you understand how auctions work, Stephen,” I chided.
“But it was fun, wasn’t it?”
The pot had now grown considerably and we were nearly out of books. Mom auctioned off the last few stragglers, then Grandma generously agreed to double the pot.
We flipped through the charity’s catalogue and calculated that we could now afford to buy a sheep. It’s no water buffalo, but don’t tell the sheep that.
We kept this tradition for many years, everyone stockpiling their books throughout the year, excited to trade up for some newbies (Or should that be “usedbies”? No, it shouldn’t.) at Christmas. It gave us something to do in a crowded space and ensured that everyone ended up with something they liked, whether that be shirtless men or cyborg aliens or shirtless cyborg aliens.
The year I snagged the penguin martini shaker and assorted mixes was exhilarating, much like the flavor of this cocktail. You’d be surprised how good a pre-made cocktail mix can be, but of course it’s always best to dress it up with a special touch.
cosmopolitan rimmer mix (or you can use sugar)
3 oz. cosmopolitan mix
2 oz. vodka
splash of cranberry juice
1. Slide the lemon wedge around the rim of the martini glass, then coat with cosmopolitan rimmer mix (or sugar).
2. Pour cosmopolitan mix and vodka into a martini shaker full of ice. Add a splash of cranberry juice for holiday cheer. Shake well.
3. Strain into martini glass, and gloat over your fabulous Christmas gifts.
Makes 1 serving
Excerpted from "Christmas Confessions and Cocktails: A Humorous Holiday Memoir with Sassy Drink Recipes" by Vicki Lesage. Copyright © 0 by Vicki Lesage. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.