'Unfortunate' gifts provide valuable lessons for today's wise men Christmas presents past

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2001

Behold, the power of Christmas: What other holiday could popularize giving angels enemas with the business end of a Douglas fir and selling a beverage with as unappetizing a name as "nog"?

I'm amazed at the marketing geniuses who were behind turning the Christmas season into what it is today. They've stretched it out longer than Strom Thurmond giving a filibuster or William Shatner performing the uncut version of "Freebird."

Once upon a time, Christmas was centered around the birth of Christ, which is celebrated by many on Dec. 25. Now the Christmas season kicks off with the after-Thanksgiving Day sales in November and wraps up in late January with the Christmas inventory liquidation blow-outs.

Mary was a saint and all, but it's a little hard to believe she was in labor for nearly two months. And those fertility-drug, multiple-birth mothers thought they had labor horror stories. Try sucking on ice chips and having contractions for 60 some days.

Even as commercialized as Christmas has become, it still has its good points. There's the concept of peace on Earth and good will to men, the giving of good tidings of comfort and joy, the irony of encouraging your kids to talk to strangers and even sit on their laps -- as long as they're wearing cheap red suits that smell like moth balls -- not to mention the amusement gained from those phenomenally bad Christmas presents.

Anyone who participates in the Christmas tradition of giving and receiving gifts has inescapably fallen victim to one of these. There's the typical rock-hard fruit cake that's been passed around more times than a sexually transmitted disease in a red light district, the footy pajamas from the distant aunt that can't seem to remember anyone's actual ages, the steel wool sweaters that immediately shrink to fit a Chihuahua the first time they're worn in the rain, etc.

My family is notorious for giving unfortunate Christmas presents. I won't call them bad because at the time they all seemed like thoughtful, useful gifts. Kind of like giving Lizzie Borden a subscription to the "decorative ax of the month club." Only in retrospect of giving those gifts, do we realize how bad they really are.

One year we gave some relatives a fancy kitchen timer for Christmas. We carefully removed the price tags, installed fresh batteries, wrapped it up and deposited the package under their tree. We just forgot to make sure the thing was turned off. On Christmas Eve the timer began loudly counting down to what our relatives thought would be an imminent explosion.

After spending the evening calling the bomb squad and hastily tearing open all the presents under the tree, the relatives were a little hard pressed to pull off the obligatory Christmas morning "Oh, I love it" routine.

My dad, in particular, has a hard time coming up with good gifts for people. This is mainly because he doesn't go shopping until 5 p.m. Christmas Eve, when the only place open in town is the hardware store and the gas station, which explains the stocking-stuffer ice scrapers we used to get as kids.

This also explains the short-lived ceiling fan Mom received a few years ago. Dad went all out, buying the deluxe fan model with fancy lights, multiple speeds and metal-edged fan blades. In theory this would have been a good gift, since my dad apparently operates on a "forget diamonds, household appliances are a girl's best friend" line of reasoning.

The problem with this theory was that the ceiling fan, being the expensive deluxe model, as dad proudly and repeatedly pointed out, hung down about a foot and a half from the ceiling. The same ceiling that is only seven feet high. Seven foot ceiling, metal-tipped rotating fan blades hanging down almost two feet -- I may not be able to handle those "a train leaves Chicago" problems, but even I can do the math on this one.

Once dad got it installed and running it was like a giant chipper-shredder hanging in the middle of the room. We had to hit the deck and crawl under the thing like we were inching through enemy territory.

Thankfully, the fan was returnable, which saved our family from a great deal of holiday hostility. Too bad we can't say the same for the Bordens' ax subscription.

Jenny Neyman is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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