The mantle in my living room is covered in garland and features my collection of twenty eight Santas, started the year I met my husband, long before I even had a mantle to put them on. The golfing Santa I gave him on our first Christmas together, the mariachi Santa purchased in Mexico on our honeymoon, the Limoges porcelain Santa-shaped bell my mother gave me the Christmas before she died, the Matryoshka nesting Santas our neighbor gave us the first year we spent Christmas in our house, and a couple dozen others gathered across two decades of Decembers.
Years ago, I asked my father if he had any idea what ever happened to the Santa I had as a child. My Santa had a red felt suit and a cardboard leg that always fell out of his Styrofoam body when you picked him up. His plastic face with it’s cotton beard was slightly smashed in from being haphazardly stored one year between the nutcracker and the life-sized baby Jesus that sat under my family’s living Christmas tree in it’s big silver bucket. Each January, dad would plant those trees along the driveway until we had a small forest in front of our house.
“If you ever come across my old Santa, I’d love to have him,” I told my father. We laughed about how my Santa used to hang out in the three-story dollhouse daddy made for my Barbies. Santa sometimes stood in as Skipper’s grandfather at Barbie weddings or was Bosley to my Charlie’s Angels dolls. I’d pose him in the peak of the attic, the only room tall enough for him to stand up-right. There his jolly blue eyes, painted on in Japan, could see me when I was sleeping or know if I was awake. When I was really young, I was pretty sure he had some say in the caliber of my gifts. He wasn’t pretty, but I coveted his nostalgia.
“Oh, and I am sure my sister would like some of her childhood ornaments too if you come upon any of those in the attic,” I requested of my father.
My sister had gotten married that summer. Her mother-in-law had recently sent some of her son’s favorite ornaments for the newlywed’s first Christmas tree. I knew my sis would love to have her holiday memories on the branches alongside her husband’s. A week or so later a box came in the mail from my dad.
Sure enough, my peg-leg Santa was front and center along with a cluster of ornaments. The musty box had likely been in the rafters above the converted garage in my childhood home since our mother died a dozen years earlier on a rainy December day. Dad’s holiday decorating was sparse after that heart-breaking Christmas. A wreath on the door and maybe a poinsettia on the kitchen table. The boxes of decorations we’d packed up just weeks after we’d buried my mother remained relegated to that dark attic crawl space, and dad’s scattered children have since taken turns hosting him for the holidays in St. Louis, Baltimore and Burbank.
The ornaments in the box under my Santa were swathed in the yellowed tissue paper that had been recycled annually and wrapped around our family’s holiday decorations to protect them in storage across a minimum of four decades. I looked through it briefly, figuring I’d give the newlyweds “first dibs” on the contents. I’d hoped my dad had found the gold angel my mother had engraved with my sister’s name on it when she was a baby, and some of pieces she made featuring school photos, sequins and glitter, but my initial glance revealed only slightly tarnished gold and silver balls. I put the box in the back of my car with the plan to see my sister the following night for a party at our cousin’s apartment. She could dig for any treasures within.
The party was in Playa del Rey, a total of 6 freeways and a good two-and-a-half-hour drive from our Valley home at rush hour on a Friday night. I stopped first to pick up my sister and her husband and we set off through the holiday traffic feeling increasingly less jovial as taillights flashed red in front of us and we inched down the 110 like sloths on tranquilizers. We grumbled about the stresses of the holidays. We mocked Christmas songs. By the time we found the apartment, we were hardly merry. The three Scrooges circled the block several times before finding parking and as I grabbed my “White Elephant” gift from the back of the car, my sister said, “OH Shit! I forgot to bring one!”
She rummaged through dad’s box. It smelled of mothballs and a sour, antique scent. We feared perhaps there was mouse carcass or something worse in the bottom as my sister tossed the ornaments neither of us recognized into the trunk. She pulled out a bendable Santa made of fabric and carrying a green pack. She twisted Santa’s wire arms so that one gloved hand was over his mouth and one was over his crotch, flattened out one of the crushed pieces of tissue paper from – I’m guessing here – 1983? - and wrapped it around her gift, tying an extra gauzy red ribbon off my gift around it for that added festive look.
When we opened our cousin's door the merriment was well under way and our gifts were added to the pile under the tree. We filled our wine glasses and mingled a bit, checking out my cousin's boyfriend’s paleo-platters – including the tray of seasonal barbequed reindeer. I grabbed a handful of baby carrots as the present exchange game began.
The idea behind a “White Elephant” is that people are supposed to bring a gift they were once given that didn’t work for them but might be exactly what another person could want. It can be funny. It can get frenzied. You could walk out with something wonderful or you could have the perfect White Elephant re-gift for next year. Some people brought gag gifts like an Obama bobble head or the “Mr. T in Your Pocket.” Some actually brought useful items like a nice bottle of wine or a good box of chocolates. Some gifts earn eye rolls and “Thank god I didn’t choose that ones” like the salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of actual white elephants that I got. If a gift is really good, people can steal it from someone else, forcing that person to open a new gift.
The bag of Starbucks coffee and the Grey Goose Vodka were stolen several times.
We went through the opening and stealing of 31 gifts and there were only two presents left to choose from. After three steals, hotly contested gifts rested with their final owners, so the last two “players” had to make a choice between taking a relatively undesirable gift from someone else, like, say my salt and pepper shakers OR one of the two lonely gifts still under the tree.
One was in a small nondescript brown paper bag, stapled shut. No ribbon. And one was my sister’s hastily wrapped surprise. The second to the last guy pondered far too long before he “stole” a wire head massager from a thin girl perched on a bar-stool wearing green and yellow flannel.
She in turn took a chance on the small brown paper bag leaving my sister’s gift alone under the colored lights of the white plastic Christmas tree. When she opened the gift green flannel girl moaned at her misfortune, “Poop Spray” meant to mask odors in the bathroom.
The last guy – lucky number 33 had a dilemma. This game had been going on for well over 90 minutes and most of the worthwhile trades had happened. He was getting pressure to just end the game and take that last gift. It was stressful. There was only one couch, two chairs and a couple bar-stools in the room, and most of us were tired of standing. The bar was blocked by the crowd, so we were also getting pretty thirsty.
Finally he acquiesced and the last lonely gift was passed his way. Oh the anticipation. My sister, the giver of the worst gift of Christmas was going home with a really good bottle of wine in a monkey wine sock. She’d made out pretty well while Number 33 tore open the decades-old tissue paper wrapping to reveal the equally old, musty smelling Santa within and exclaimed in dismay, “I should have taken the poop spray!”