By Robert Rodi
I come from a large family—three sisters, three brothers—and for years we siblings bravely persisted in honoring the holiday spirit by giving each other Christmas presents. But when spouses entered the picture, and then kids—the latter popping out at the alarming rate of sometimes two or three a year—our gift-giving expenses seriously spiked. As the only childless member of the clan, and therefore the one who took the biggest hit to the fiscal solar plexus, I ventured to suggest that maybe it was time we adults retired the habit, at least with regard to each other. As it was, the practice had devolved into everyone submitting a list of several things he or she wanted, and the others dutifully trotting out and buying them. “The whole spirit of gift-giving isn’t even there anymore,” I said. “It’s like ordering online. Only without a return policy.”
So we tried it the following year at our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and it went just swimmingly. The kids had the pleasure of ripping into boxes beneath the tree like a pack of crazed weasels, while the adults celebrated the occasion in a more dignified fashion, with platters of home-cooked food and a cascade of fine California wines.
But my sister Cindy is a restless, active, highly motivated woman, and event planning is basically her superpower. Nothing withstands her improving eye for very long. (If I didn’t know better I’d be tempted to credit her with continental drift; she’s exactly the type to decide that America would look better five or six inches to the left.) The idea that there was a component of the Christmas holidays we’d simply jettisoned, because reasons, did not sit well with her. Sure, we’d allowed our gift-giving to grow stale and meaningless; but the thing to do was not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The thing to do was to get the right goddamn baby.
And so it happened that the invitation to the following year’s dinner included instructions for each adult to bring a wrapped gift—not intended for anyone in particular, but something that in theory any of us might like. When we arrived we were given the explanation: it was part of a really terrific grab-bag game Cindy’s colleagues had played at their holiday office party.
“The way it goes is like this,” she said, brimming with enthusiasm. “We sit in a circle.” Immediately I winced; I find any attempts at group formation distressingly military. “Then we draw straws to see who starts.” Here I openly cringed. I’m a simple man; for me, drawing straws is already a game; now it was just the first layer of a dauntingly larger one—like the outer shell of a turducken.
“Then,” she continued, “the person who draws the short straw picks a gift from the pile. Not the one they brought,” she amended, just as I was thinking, I’ll pick the one I brought. Which, as it happens, was a very nice silver key fob from Tiffany. (Such is the advantage to having a gay brother.) “Then the person to the left goes next.” I resisted the urge to ask, why left? In a game that seemed to want to leave nothing to chance, why not draw straws for clockwise or counter-clockwise? Why not draw straws for ordering who sits next to whom? Why not draw straws to see who goes first at drawing straws? But I sensed my questions would be mistaken for cheeky subversion (the disadvantage to having a gay brother), so I just shut up and had another drink.
“The second person,” Cindy continued, “has the option of picking a gift from the pile, or of stealing the gift picked by the first person.”
“What?” I said, unable to hold my tongue any longer. “How exactly does larceny reflect the Christmas spirit?”
She knew me well enough to ignore me. “Then the first person gets to pick again. After which the third person goes, and he can either pick a gift from the pile or steal from one of the first two players. Whoever gets stolen from gets to pick from the pile again, or steal. And so on.”
My head started to throb. The rules for this game were starting to sound as labyrinthine as the federal tax code. Why couldn’t we just play Twister, or throw water balloons? But it was too late to protest: the grab-bag game was barreling down on us like a locomotive; it was either get on board, or get run over. I went to the kitchen to pour myself another tumbler of bourbon, thinking that might help—then decided to just bring back the whole bottle.
There were twelve of us playing: the six siblings and our spouses. We drew straws to see who would begin. Of course I picked the short one. Everyone else was actively frothing to play this diabolical brain-melter, and fate handed the opening gambit to the only one of us who wanted to flee into the snow.
I chose a gift and unwrapped it. It was a bottle of olive oil—in fact, olio nuovo, just pressed a few weeks earlier in Tuscany. It had a lovely, clouded, unfiltered body; I could only imagine how spicy and peppery it must taste. I looked up and smiled. “Cool,” I said, meaning it. I felt a sudden easing of my anxiety. Christmas was wonderful; I loved everybody.
“Now it’s Patty’s turn,” Cindy said, indicating another of my sisters, seated immediately to my left. “Patty, you can either pick a gift from the pile or you can steal Rob’s olive oil.”
“I’ll steal Rob’s olive oil.”
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
While I was still reeling she took the bottle from me—just casually reached over and plucked it out of my lap, even smiling as she did so, like some serene Pacific Islander who’d been raised with no concept of evil.
I sat for a while, stunned, until Cindy cleared her throat and prompted me. “Rob, you get to pick again.”
“Can I steal back the olive oil?”
“No, you have to take something from the pile.”
“I don’t get to steal?”
“Maybe later. If someone steals your next gift, you get the choice of either picking another one or stealing somebody else’s.”
“But I want to steal somebody else’s now.”
“There’s only two of you. You can’t steal back something that was only just stolen from you.”
“Why not? It’s stealing. Why are there rules for that? Isn’t the whole point of stealing that you’re giving rules the finger?”
Her nostrils flared; I was clearly annoying her. “Other people are waiting to play,” she observed menacingly.
Chastened, I sighed and took another package from the pile. It was elongated and heavy; I thought maybe, just maybe, it would be another bottle of olive oil.
It was a bottle of high-end shampoo.
“I am a bald man,” I pointed out. “I am a man without hair.”
“Right?” she said, barely able to contain her glee. Apparently this hellish upturning of any sort of rational order was exactly the thing that, in her view, made it fun.
My brother Mike went next. He opted to steal the olive oil. Patty now had to pick something else from the pile. Lucky girl; she got a silver key fob from Tiffany.
And on it went. There was a flurry of torn paper and quite a bit of stealing, and I found all of it nearly impossible to follow. I did keep my eye on the olive oil; it got passed around like an open bag of Doritos, which everyone seemed to think was utterly hilarious. But no one—none of my siblings and siblings-in-law, with all their lank, lustrous, silky tresses—not one of them had any interest in a bottle of designer-name, salon-quality shampoo with actual essences of coriander and lavender and whatever the hell else was crack cocaine for hair follicles.
At the end of the game Cindy ended up with the olive oil. Clearly, for her the entire evening was a roaring success.
But I shouldn’t complain; after all, in addition to the shampoo I ended up going home with almost an entire bottle of premium bourbon. Yeah, all right, by that time it was no longer really in the bottle…but at Christmas, it seems wrong to quibble.