Tag Archives: Rules

The Holiday Games

Milspouse Dec

My December column in Military Spouse Magazine!

Ah, the holidays — that wonderful time of year, when selfish materialism and greed are banished as we ring in The Season of Giving.

Right? . . . Well, not quite.

While it’s true that even Scrooge himself can’t resist gift giving during this time of year, there’s a persistent evil lurking at holiday get-togethers and office parties. It tempts us, taunts us, and threatens to turn us all into ruthless criminals.

What, pray tell, is this wicked presence which endangers our merriment?


Otherwise known as a “Yankee Swap,” “Parcel Pass,” or “Dirty Santa,” this apparently innocent holiday game rouses merciless thievery and coldblooded materialism in even the most virtuous of participants. But do not fear! It is possible to keep from getting sucked into the criminal maelstrom, as long as you keep your wits about you.

As you walk into the holiday gathering, you will most certainly be drawn in by sparkly decorations and twinkling lights. Remember — you are a human being, not a ferret. Do not get distracted by shiny objects and lose all sense of morality!

Before the competition begins, you will engage in enjoyable chitchat with your fellow attendees. It will seem like loads of fun, and you might even chuckle. Get a hold of yourself! Never lose sight of the fact that the people you are nattering away with are about to rob you blind.

As you mingle, you will be enticed by celebratory cocktails, tasty finger foods, fancy-schmancy cookies, and the Holiday Party Staple – red and green M&Ms. Go ahead and feast – you will need your strength, after all – but beware of overindulgence which might cloud your thinking.

At some point, the host will ask you to gather around for the gift exchange. As the first few people open their chosen gifts, others will utter friendly “oohs” and “ahhs,” and everyone will undoubtedly remain civil at this early stage of the game.

Don’t be fooled by the jovial ambiance! As more merchandise is revealed, eyes will dart, mouths will water, and brains will calculate odds as the participants begin to silently strategize.

During the fourth or fifth turn, someone will nervously propose “stealing” an already opened gift. This timid suggestion is all it will take to shatter the courteous atmosphere, giving way to what will soon become a bloodthirsty battle. Participants, who have been repressing their competitive fervor, will soon burst into sputtering chants of “STEAL! STEAL!” Holiday merriment will turn into hectic mayhem as the scene becomes reminiscent of a Roman Coliseum.

The partygoer-turned-thief will rise to her feet and lunge at the desired gift, seizing it from her prey as the crowd erupts in hoots and applause. The victim of the theft will seethe with vengeance and plot her revenge.

As the snarling guests mercilessly snatch gifts from each other, the host, in an effort to maintain some semblance of order, might offer, “Now, remember everyone, a gift is dead after it’s stolen three times.” But the mere mention of “death” will only ignite more savagery in an already depraved scene. Contestants may murderously shout, “It’s DEAD!” and the crowd will gnash their teeth as if a bloody carcass has been dragged back to the den.

When all the gifts have been killed, reality will dawn upon the guests. They will realize that they just jeopardized friendships, offended co-workers, and engaged in quasi-criminal behavior for a boysenberry scented candle, snowman ornament, or reindeer chip-n-dip platter that could be purchased for $10-20 at any Exchange.

Still, what fun would a holiday gift exchange be without the thrill of theft, murder and mayhem? So, remember folks: steal the gift you want before it dies, mercilessly exact your revenge, and have a very Happy Holiday!


TIPS for making a White Elephant Gift Exchange even more fun:

  • Propose a theme. Rather than leaving the field wide open to anything from auto parts to lip gloss, narrow the choices to items such as holiday ornaments, holiday entertaining, kitchen items, books, or (my all time favorite) fashion accessories!
  • Bring a “Hidden Treasure” gift. Wrap up some old thing that no one would want, such as an ugly hat or outdated DVD, and keep quiet as the guests avoid your gift. At the end, tell the seemingly unlucky recipient that something is hidden inside, and watch guests’ reactions as she unveils a gift card or trendy jewelry!
  • Be specific about the cost of the gifts. If you set vague parameters such as “around 20 bucks” or “at least $10” guests might worry that they haven’t spent as much as everyone else. It’s better to tell everyone up front to spend, for example, $15 – no more, no less.
  • Throw in a “dud” gift. The poor slob who ends up with the 8-track tape of KC and the Sunshine Band, the hideous embroidered holiday sweater vest, or the old fruitcake will feel like a loser for sure. But add an ironic twist by awarding the loser a special bonus prize at the end like a bottle of wine or centerpiece!
  • The Annual Lazarus gift – if your group has a white elephant exchange every year, it is fun to have a recurring nonsense gift. The one who ends up with the Lazarus will have the honor of keeping it until next year’s party, so it is fun to make this gift a bizarre display piece such as a singing trout plaque, a scary clown figurine, or velvet Elvis painting.


Merry Christmas and may 2013 bring a heaping helping of Meat and Potatoes to all!


Have Life’s rules changed?

Parking my yellow convertible on the seventh square, I read the words aloud,

“’Inherit shrunken head collection. Pay $10,000 for museum to accept it.’ Aw, man!”

“Pay up, and quit yer whining!” my brother snickered with sick satisfaction. No matter what game we played, my older brother always appointed himself the banker, setting an immediate tone of domination. The Game of Life was no exception, and he snapped the brightly colored bills out of my hand with a greedy sneer.

Growing up in the 70s with only three television channels and one mind-numbingly monotonous Atari Tennis game, my brother and I relied heavily on board games for entertainment when we weren’t outside chasing each other with sticks. We played Monopoly, Sorry!, Risk, Payday, Clue, Masterpiece, Stratego, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Battleship and other games expressly intended to reward the rich, the ruthless, the lucky, and the intellectually superior.

There were no consolation prizes for the losers – if you lost, you suffered complete destitution and utter humiliation, and we liked it that way. After all, if losing wasn’t so unbearable, why bother winning?

One recent weekend, my kids were draped lazily over our sofa whining, “We’re BORED!” I reminded them of the myriad of bikes, scooters, and athletic equipment lying dormant in our garage, and they sighed. I reminded them of our four televisions with over 200 channels each, and they sighed. I reminded them of the Wii game system complete with guitars, microphones, electronic dance mat, steering wheel and drum set, and they sighed.

Finally, I marched up to their playroom and scanned the stacks of neglected games on the shelves. I spied the current edition of The Game of Life, and plucked it from the pile. Cajoling them with the promise of unhealthy snack foods, the kids agreed to play the game. A few minutes later, I heard their banter at the dining room table.

“’Cycle to work.’ Ooo, I got $10,000.”

“’Support Wildlife Fund.’ Ha! I got $5,000!”

“Wait a minute? What game are you guys playing?” I interrupted. There on our table lay The Game of Life with its characteristic segmented pathway, rainbow spinner, and white plastic buildings. However, upon closer inspection, I could see that this was not the game of my youth.

“What’s this – ‘Countryside Acres?’ What happened to The Poor Farm? And are these minivans? No more convertibles? You get money for recycling now? What’s going on?!”

Determined to alleviate my confusion, I called my mother, who like me is unable to get rid of anything with remotely sentimental value. Sure enough, she found the Game of Life my brother and I used to play in the basement of the 1950s brick ranch of my youth. I asked her to carefully open the brittle old box and read to me from its faded game board.

“Big day at the races. Collect $80,000.”

“Pay $5,000 for toupee.”

“Find Uranium deposit. Collect $100,000.”

“Tornado blows you back to start.”

“Buy raccoon coat. Pay $500.”

“Uncle in jail. Pay $500 bail.

“Buy Rolls Royce. Pay $16,000.”

“REVENGE. Collect $100,000 from any player.”

With each square, fond memories of rainy days spent trying to crush my opponent flooded my mind. Back then, the Rules of Life were clear – get a good job, take care of your responsibilities, make as much money as possible. Sure, every player had to deal with the hard knocks in Life like tornadoes, jury duty, poison ivy, and poor relatives. But if you could manage to get rich, there was no shame in rewarding yourself with yachts and trips to Monte Carlo. To the contrary, wealth was respected and necessary to win at The Game of Life.

Nowadays, players in The New Game of Life get money for planting trees, having family picnics, returning lost wallets, joining health clubs and even making new friends. Nobody goes bald or inherits a skunk farm anymore. Gambling and revenge have been outlawed, and players have ample chances in Life to “Spin again if not in the lead.”

To make matters worse, the old game’s daunting “Day of Reckoning” has now been replaced with an anti-climactic choice between a government subsidized retirement community called “Countryside Acres,” and watered-down Millionaire Estates. No more Poor Farm or risk-taking Millionaire Tycoons. Everyone’s a winner. Frankly, I’m surprised the game doesn’t come with trophies for every player.

Sadly, I said goodbye to my mother and hung up the phone. “Isn’t it bad enough that we no longer have a clear vision of what it means to live the American Dream, but now our children must face the same milk-toast sociology in their board games? What is this world coming to?” I thought to myself.

Just then, I heard a commotion in the dining room, and rushed in to find my son holding his sister in a headlock as she screamed, “You’re just mad ‘cause I beat you again! I’m richer than you are!”

“Whew,” I thought, and was relieved to see that some things in Life will never change.

Rule No. 1: Follow the Rules

Fifteen years ago, I took on the role of stay-at-home mom with determination to go above and beyond the call of duty. I wanted to be one of those strong women who could handle just about anything, and for the most part, I was. I cooked, I cleaned, I nurtured, I maintained complete control. Nothing could faze me.

That worked for a little while, and then, strangely, my children started to think for themselves. No amount of time outs, gold stars, yelling, grounding or wooden spoons would make my children obey me every time. No matter what I did, they chipped away at my power, worming their way into my captain’s chair.

My breaking point came during a family camping trip. Ever the idealist, I envisioned us having hilarious family game nights in the cabin, meaningful talks on the docks under dappled sunlight, delicious barbeques, and gooey chocolate smiles after eating s’mores by the fireside. 

It rained for four days solid.

Thankfully, our cabin was equipped with electricity, and the sedative affect of the television was the only thing that kept us from going mad. On the fifth day, the clouds parted, and I was determined to have a happy family barbeque to salvage our experience. 

Without dry wood, we lit a smoky fire with damp sticks and charcoal briquettes. While the kids ran around the muddy perimeter of our cabin squealing and fighting, we cooked a few sad hot dogs on the smoldering fire.

I covered the slimy algae-stained picnic benches with blankets, set the table with our sad hot dogs, and called the kids to our happy family barbeque. Channeling June Cleaver, I bellowed, “C’mon kids! Time for din-din!”

Five minutes later, no one was at the table, so I started to count, “One, Two….” Lilly appeared, splattered with mud up to her knees. A few minutes later, I stormed off to find the other two, physically escorting them to their seats.

 “I don’t wanna eat it – it’s cold,” Anna said, staring down at her mac-n-cheese and singed hot dog. “I can’t find my shoe,” Lilly mumbled, just as I noticed her purple Mary Jane embedded in the mud a few feet away. I swatted the gnats and tried to maintain my composure.

I planned s’mores for dessert and hoped that this would be a sure fire hit. We held the marshmallows against the metal grill in order to get heat from the nearly extinguished briquettes, but in the end, the sugary confections were stiff, and tainted with smears of black soot and hot dog residue. The kids were too busy fighting over the Hershey bars to notice. 

Finally, my husband and I gave up and ordered everyone inside. The “electronic nanny” (ie, television) lulled the kids into a catatonic state, and we collapsed onto the couch. Frustrated with my lack of control, my mind raced.

Just then, the proverbial light bulb blinked on in my head. I leaped off the couch to find the art supplies I had packed for happy family crafts that never took place, and grabbed paper and colored pencils. I scribbled and sketched furiously like a mad scientist writing an ingenious formula. After an hour or two, my masterpiece was complete: The Molinari Family “Rules” were born.

A few days later, we were back home and I was determined to set a new standard.

“Ahem. I hereby call to order the first official Molinari Family Meeting. Please take a moment to write your name at the top of the four page agenda I typed up this morning.” I pronounced while pushing in Lilly’s booster seat.

I unveiled “The Rules” in dramatic fashion and asked everyone to read them aloud with me. Lilly, not yet a reader, mumbled as she watched our mouths, trying to imitate what we were saying.

After 30 minutes, the kids were slouched in their seats. After an hour, their heads were on the table. I closed the meeting sometime into the second hour, ending on a positive note – something about how much we loved them.

After the meeting, I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, armed, and in control. I was convinced that I had taken back the reigns and was going to steer the family on a straight course.

A year later, there I was again, furiously typing up another long Molinari Family Meeting agenda. About five such meetings have taken place since that ill-fated camping trip. Before each meeting, I ask everyone to recite “The Rules” together, in an attempt to reclaim order and civility in our little tribe. And after each meeting, I always feel so much better.

Recently, when things started spinning out of control, I immediately knew what I had to do.

Another agenda, recitation of “The Rules” and two hour meeting, always ending on the usual high note – something about how much we love them. As always, I felt so much better.

The next day, as I picked up the umpteen things left lying around the house, I realized that absolutely nothing had really changed. It occurred to me that perhaps the meetings were only for my benefit. Was everyone in the family simply sacrificing a couple hours of their time so Mom could regain her sanity. 

Embarrassed by this realization, I contemplated making my futile meetings a thing of the past. But then it dawned on me — In a twisted sort of way, my family’s sacrifice was sorta sweet, and besides, such behavior was exemplary of “Rule #1: Be kind.”

Feeling justified, I hung “The Rules” back on their nail to await the next Molinari Family Meeting.

I wrote and posted this article last year, but it was recently published in my weekly column in The Indiana Gazette. For those of you who have been long-time readers, thanks for tolerating the reprint – I wanted The Gazette readers to be able to come to my blog to see the photos related to the story.  And besides, “The Rules” still apply!


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