in danish, “gift” means both “married” and “poison”
Gifts are a big deal in our family. We don’t do Christmas (nobody but A. is religious, but aside from that we’re as Jewish as they get, even our pets are neurotic and whiny and have a weird sense of humour), so we compensate on birthdays and New Year’s Eve. Naturally, with our splendid organizational skills (spot the sarcasm), we all end up in a mad hurry, scrambling to get presents for everyone at the last moment. The wrapping we do after the last moment, minutes before sticking the gifts under the ficus that represents a Christmas tree in my parents’ house. And if only we were a sensible family who just gave a gift each, that would still not be the end of the world. But no such luck. We believe in the “many smaller gifts” approach. Thence arrive conversations like this:
— What are we getting my brother?
— Let’s get him a parrot. (all gifts in this post are fictional)
— Okay, a parrot. And probably a parrot-owner’s manual.
— And obviously a cage and parrot food.
— Obviously. But WHAT ELSE? (cue anguish of body and mind over having NO GIFT TO SPEAK OF)
The gifting ceremony is held around the ficus with active involvement on the part of the Dog and the Cat. This year, there’s also Baby Cat who in all likelihood will contribute to the general merriment. Each gift is extracted in turn, the label read, and the gift delivered accordingly. The receiver is expected to unwrap it immediately and share the joy with everyone. Only after the present has been thoroughly inspected by all of the assembled may the next one be brought out. With regard to this ceremony, a careful balance must be preserved. What if someone gets five tiny gifts (e.g., socks, playing cards, a humorous calendar, and two balls of yarn) while someone else only gets one huge one (a cow, for instance)? The one may be disappointed with the scale, while the other will be forced to sit through the entire thing clutching their cow and following everyone’s gifts with envious looks. Yes, of course it’s the thought that matters, but nonetheless conferences are held of the following ilk:
— Did you get something for Grandma?
— Well, she needs a new lawnmower, we thought we’d all chip in.
— Yes, but then she’ll only have that. How about we add a hairnet and some sparkly tooth ornaments?
— But won’t that be too much? Remember, it’s her birthday in January, what shall we get then?
— Well, she can’t just have the one, can she. You give her the lawnmower, we’ll think of something.
There are family members more difficult to shop for than others. Our grandparents win that race hands down. What do you get an elderly man who is convinced he must pay for everything anyone over two generations down buys, or a woman who manages to work into every conversation an offer of something in her house?
— Look, Grandma, I got a new ring. Do you like it?
— Ring? That’s a nice ring. I have many rings too! They are beautiful rings, why don’t you take some?
— Thanks, but I already have the one.
— Yes, but they are silver! Gold, I’m not even offering, I know how you are, but these are delicate! I know you don’t wear large jewelry. Also, I have nice crystal vases, do you want them?
— Thanks, Grandma, you’ve sure got many beautiful things here.
— Much good it does me with grandchildren who take nothing!
Naturally, scheming, plotting, and conspiring are all part of the game. People enlist each other in helping to find, buy, hide, and wrap gifts. Deals are struck after some bartering. One is let on another’s brilliant find as a sponsor, after begging for hours that the other accept their money. The most popular phrase is “forget it, let it be a gift from both of us, and you don’t owe me anything”, because when it comes to finance management, we are about as brilliant as we are organized. (But we’re all very generous.) By the night of December 31st usually everyone knows everyone’s gifts but their own. Still, somehow, the element of surprise is preserved. After a very noisy and happy hour of exchanging gifts, everyone sighs contentedly and goes into their own corner to sit on a pile of wrapping paper and read the new books they (most likely) got. And that really is all anyone wanted in the first place.