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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!


A Time for Hope, Cheer, and Ruthless Criminal Behavior

During this season of giving, people everywhere are transformed. The Spirit of Christmas inspires generosity, compassion and joy in us all. But sometimes, in the midst of all this merriment, mania causes our personalities to swing wildly in the other direction, resulting in violence, theft, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

What, pray tell, could cause such extreme behavior, you say?  Why would any decent person want to hurt others at Christmas time? What could ignite cruelty during a spiritual season such as this?

The answer is simple: The White Elephant Gift Exchange.

Otherwise known as a “Yankee Swap,” “Parcel Pass,” or “Dirty Santa,” this apparently innocent holiday game rouses merciless thievery and selfish materialism in even the most virtuous of participants.

Case in point: Last week, my bunco group got together for our monthly game and a white elephant ornament exchange. Most members shopped beforehand, picking out something unique, handmade or artistic.

The class clown in me always goes for the laugh, so I couldn’t resist when I saw glass blown German ornaments shaped like acorns and walnuts. I bought one of each, envisioning the hysterical laughter that would erupt when, as the recipient opened my ornaments, I would blurt out, “Who doesn’t like a nice pair of nuts at Christmas?”

We arrived at the hostess’ apartment at the designated hour and placed our tiny packages under her sparkling tree. Wine glasses filled, chit chat ensued, and we were all enjoying the friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

An hour into the night, we were filling up on hot dip and red and green M&Ms, when the hostess called us into the living room to start the ornament exchange.  Light laughter and conversation continued as we casually plopped onto couches and chairs.

We had no idea of the carnage that was about to befall our group.

After some flimsy debate over who should pick first, our hostess announced, “Ok, ladies, why don’t we go in alphabetical order, according to the first letter of our middle names.”

Three women claiming some derivation of the name “Ann” went first, and they each picked from the wrapped gifts under the tree.

One by one, they gently unraveled the tissue paper from around their chosen ornament. Eyes darted around the room and lips muttered as brains calculated. Just seconds before, we were more interested in idle chit chat and cranberry cream cheese spread, but now that merchandise was being revealed, we began to silently strategize.

Suddenly, our casual attitude toward the parameters of the game changed, and questions arose.

“Hey, by middle name, are we talking about God-given names or what we use now?” I asked when I realized that it would be better to use my original middle name, Lynne. Why didn’t I consider gift exchange strategy when I decided to keep my maiden name after getting married? Stupid, I thought.

“No, it has to be the name you are using now,” another wife interjected, adamantly.

With some grumbling, the game continued. After four or five women selected from under the tree, the rest of us considered our options: a plastic reindeer standing on an ice cube, two adorable hand-made wooden ornaments, a tiny cuckoo clock replica, an intricately painted German ornament, or one of the unwrapped gifts under the tree.


Suddenly someone cried “Steal!” and our mouths began to water. “Yea, it’s no fun if we all just pick from the wrapped gifts, you’ve got to steal!” I added, wiping the spittle from my chin.

A chant ensued, “Steal! Steal! Steal!” as the designated woman rose from her seat. A tiny grin could be seen on her face as she lunged toward a wooden ornament, snatching it from her victim. We all erupted in hoots and applause, as if the living room had just turned into a Roman Coliseum.

Seething with vengeance, the victim of the ruthless theft plotted her revenge.

The scene quickly turned from one of holiday merriment to hectic mayhem, as my bunco group turned into an unruly mob.

As the snarling women snatched ornaments, our host tried to maintain order. “Now, remember ladies, the gift is dead after it is stolen three times.”

But the mere mention of “death” only seemed to ignite more savagery.

The last woman to steal shouted, “It’s DEAD, it’s DEAD!” in a murderous rage, and we all gnashed our teeth as if she was carrying a bloody carcass back to the den.

The final victim had no choice; she had to pick the lone gift left under the tree. It was the acorn and walnut ornaments I had brought, and as she revealed them, I weakly offered my “pair of nuts” joke. The women, still wounded from battle, could only force a few bogus chuckles.

As we said goodnight, I realized that we had just had an epic war over silly stuff that we could purchase for less than $10 in any local store. But what fun would that be, without the thrill of theft, murder and mayhem in the midst of delicious cookies and twinkle lights?

So remember folks: steal the gift you want before it dies, avoid the duds, mercilessly exact your revenge, and have a very Merry Christmas!


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