Voices of the clarion: You can't have it: it's mine

Nothing like a friendly gift exchange to bring out the worst in adults our friends

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2004

Well, it's the holidays again: that time of year when we look at each other with rose-colored glasses and think, "Hey, they're not such a weird person, after all."

We're more polite, we smile more, we bake, we shop, we decorate, and we delight in just being alive.

We're just downright jovial.

Well, that's how I've always seen the holidays. That is, until I went to a Christmas party last week.

I arrived a little late, after putting the paper to bed, so those who were there already were exchanging gifts.

Except this was no normal gift exchange. It was a Chinese gift exchange.

I tried to research this phenomenon on the Internet, and I found plenty of rules and explanations, but no specific reason why the word "Chinese" is part of the name. In fact, one Web site actually starts out saying, "There's probably nothing really Chinese about it, but ... ."

The point of this "exchange" is that there's no real "exchange" taking place — at least that's how I saw it.

What I saw was your basic friendly gift exchange gone bad. It even got scary at times. To call it violent would be pushing it, but you get the idea.

The premise of the "exchange" is to have each person bring a nongender-specific gift where everyone spends generally the same amount of money. In other words, bring something people actually might want.

Each person is given a number — in this case there were 24 people — and the game begins.

No. 1 picks a gift, opens it and says, "How lovely." No. 2 picks out a present, and here's where it starts to get ugly. No. 2 can either take No. 1's gift away from her (most of the participants were women) or keep what was picked. But that decision has to be made before the present is opened.

As you might suspect, the more people who become involved, the nastier the "exchange" becomes.

Let's say we're up to No. 5. She picks out a gift, but she wants what No. 3 has, so she takes No. 3's gift. Now No. 3 rushes over to No. 2 and rips it out of his hands, leaving him to either take a gift from No. 1 or No. 4 or keep the gift he has. You see, once an "exchange" has been made during a round, it cannot be "exchanged" again.

Clear? It wasn't for me either, at least not until a few rounds had passed.

The trouble really got brewing once we went beyond single digits.

I was amazed at the accuracy with which participants were able to keep track of what was up for grabs and what wasn't, but these were obviously professionals I was witnessing in action here.

By the time we reached 20, each round was now lasting about 15 minutes. What impressed me most was that although the rounds were longer, the participants had streamlined it down to a fine art.

No. 21 picks up a package, but immediately knows she wants No. 12's blanket, so she doesn't even miss a beat. Now No. 12 knows that No. 16 is hiding that doggie water dish filter under her chair as No. 16 nonchalantly crosses her legs to block the view, all the while making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, figuring she can hang onto it if she ignores everyone in the room. But No. 12 is not fooled! No, the water dish is hers!

Still, what disturbed me most about the "exchange" wasn't necessarily discovering a side of my friends I had not seen before. It was that, as astonished as I was at seeing the entire process unfold before me, I, too, was sucked into the game. For when the end of the "exchange" neared and I still had my prized doggie dinnerware, No. 18 dared to come near me with an evil grin upon her lips.

I found myself trying No. 16's approach and attempted to ignore her, but there she was, standing before me.

"What do you got there?"

"Nothing," I said throwing myself on top of the box.

"I think I'll take that dinnerware," she said.

Without so much as a thought, I blurted out, "I wouldn't if I were you. I can slander you in the paper!"

Oh, my gosh. What the heck was that? Did that really come from me?

The room erupted in laughter.

I was embarrassed.

I had become one of them.

I was now initiated into the "exchange."

I learned something about myself that night. I, too, have an evil side.

OK, so this in not news, but hey, I got to keep the doggie dinnerware.

I can't wait until next year.

Dori Lynn Anderson is the managing editor of the Peninsula Clarion.



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