Thanks to me, nobody in our family will be getting anything for Christmas this year. Not from one another, anyway. After decades of basically amiable gift-giving, everybody is scratching everybody else off their shopping lists—putting the X in Xmas, you might say. I might say it, too, except that everybody in my family has gotten so damn touchy lately—I guess because, you know, they like getting presents for Christmas. And thanks to me, this year they won't.
Remind me to never mention the holiday spirit again. Remind me, the next time I start troubling over the values that underlie our traditions of giving and receiving, to consider the serenity of surrender, the harmony of going with the flow and the importance of family. Or just tell me to shut the fuck up. Would you do that for me, please? I'd ask somebody in my family, but I fear being the first to break the silence. Besides, at this point their lips are so tightly pursed I seriously doubt whether they can actually form words.
I'm still amazed this has turned into such a big deal. It's not like I demanded that the family put a stop to the newfangled gift-exchange game they all embraced last Christmas—the one in which generic items were bought, numbered, opened, traded, surrendered, stolen and otherwise ranked in a competition to see who could end up with the best present. All I did was make an I've-gotta-vomit face and a strained mention that none of this wheeling and dealing sounded very spirit-of-Christmas-like. Everybody seemed to ignore me.
Okay, so I didn't like the new game—the "Gift Grab," somebody called it, without blanching. It seemed like a recipe for selfishness, cruelty and hurt feelings. I was perfectly content with the name-drawing system that had served the adults in the family for almost 20 years, since my brothers and sisters began getting married and having kids and it became too expensive to buy gifts for everybody. Sure, it sorta bugged me that the two people pushing hardest to impose this new family ritual were unhappy with the gifts they'd been getting under the old system. But I also realized that one of them had received a Rod Stewart CD a few years back. I felt her pain. At the same time, I just couldn't bring myself to spend the morning after Midnight Mass making like Monty Hall. I mean, Jiminy Christmas, this is supposed to be the Son of God's birthday, not Alan Greenspan's.
So I just quietly opted out. I gave a small gift-wrapped something to everybody and when the "Gift Grab" began, I unobtrusively excused myself. No grandiose displays of disdain. No sideways wisecracks. Not even any pukey-face-making or Charlie-Brown-Christmas sermonizing. To summarize: absolutely none of the hifalutin' blabbermouthing that usually accompanies my every principled stand.
Instead, I simply took an unimpeded second trip through the breakfast buffet. And even as the cutthroat capitalism in the living room began to drown out my mom's favorite album of Christmas carols, I managed a smile of satisfaction at the lessons of this holiday season: I was finally developing some tolerance and diplomatic skills, and my family was learning the hardball art of the hostile takeover. God bless us, everyone! Thus is the beauty of the holiday spirit!
But see, this is the way the holiday spirit works: like camouflage! Just beneath my magnanimous flush of forbearance, I still regarded those gift-swappers around the Christmas tree as moneychangers in the temple. And just beneath their cheerful chatter, my relatives in the living room resented me for turning my back on their game without either permission or explanation. And as beautiful as the holiday spirit may be, everybody has heard the complaint that it never lasts the whole year round.
In other words, all of this leftover Christmas malevolence was bound to come out.
It finally happened in October, when one of my brothers and his wife happened to mention the fast-approaching return of this holiday season, and my first comment was to assert that I wouldn't be taking part in the "gift grab" again this year, arrogantly scoffing as I said the name of the game. Stupidly, I expected that they would admire me for my principled stand, completely forgetting that they'd emerged as the big winners in last year's derby when they brought a designer candle set to the party and went home with a lawn chair.
"Why do you always have to be different?" my favorite brother snapped reflexively. "Why can't you just be part of the family?" my sweetest sister-in-law chimed in, uncharacteristically.
"I-I-I am part of the family!" I insisted, suddenly tongue-tied and defensive and worried about where this was going. "But does that mean I have to do everything everybody else does? What? I'm not allowed to have my own principles?"
"Aw, you're just like Aunt Jo!" my brother came back cuttingly. That hurt, but not because he'd called up the name of our family's most-notorious curmudgeon; what stung is that Aunt Jo is—perhaps not coincidentally—my favorite aunt.
"Hey, I'm not stopping you from doing whatever you want to do," I responded, ignoring the Aunt Jo reference and instead backhandedly attacking the gift grab. "I hardly said a word about this big, selfish, impersonal gimme-gimme game you all want to play, in which everybody has to angle for what they want—unless somebody wants something thoughtful and personal. Go ahead and play it. But I don't want to."
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We climbed in our cars and drove away angrily, and then phoned each other to talk some more when we got home. But things had changed in the meantime. Unsettled by the argument, I'd decided to ditch my principles and go along with the gift-grab game. Suddenly, the fight didn't seem worth it. And my brother had re-examined his values and proposed looking for something to replace the gift-grab game. To him, the game suddenly didn't seem worthy of our family.
Or maybe all of this wasn't so sudden. Turns out, I wasn't the only one who felt funny about scheming for the best present on Christmas morning. My brother and his wife hadn't felt too comfortable with it, either. Later, we found out that others were bugged, too. The differences in our reactions came from the differences in our focuses: mine was on the problems with the game; the others were on the importance of doing something as a family. When I shattered that family unity, the others considered it more sacrilegious than turning the Nativity into NAFTA. "But I didn't realize we were allowed to just unilaterally disengage from family tradition," said my brother, who always talks like that. "It felt like a violation when you just walked out on us."
"Yeah, I thought it sucked," said my sister-in-law, who never talks like that. "I was pissed."
In the weeks that followed, a flurry of e-mails and phone calls killed the gift-grab game. Some feelings were undoubtedly hurt in the process. Nobody's saying much. Meanwhile, nothing new has been instituted to replace the gift grab as a family activity. Nobody wants to go back to the name-drawing system, and buying presents for everybody is still too burdensome. Some people have made suggestions, from family sing-alongs to a combined charitable donation. But now the holiday season is in swing and Christmas is coming, and everything is up in the air and uncomfortable, thanks to me. But it's the thought that's supposed to count at this time of year. I guess this year we're thinking about what it all means.