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White Elephant

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 we 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 matryoshka nesting Santas our neighbor gifted us the first year we spent Christmas in our house, and the Limoges porcelain Santa-shaped bell my mother gave me the Christmas before she died, along with 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 kid. 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.

“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. 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 fairly certain 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.”

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 it would be a great surprise for my sister to have her own holiday memories on the branches alongside her husband’s, like maybe the angel mom had engraved with her name on it or some of the school photos framed in painted macaroni.

A week or so later a box came in the mail from my dad.

And there, amidst a scattering of ornaments, rested my peg leg Santa, with his now butter-colored beard and elfin smile. I couldn’t help but smile back, like reconnecting with an old friend. The musty box he inhabited 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, while 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 was recycled annually and wrapped around our family’s holiday decorations across a minimum of four decades. I looked through it briefly, but didn’t see anything I recognized, so I plopped it in the backseat of my car. My sister could dig for treasures when I picked her up for a party at our cousin’s apartment the following night.

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. I stopped by Silver Lake to pick up my sister and her husband, and we set off through the holiday traffic feeling increasingly less jovial as tail-lights flashed red in front of us and we inched down the 110 like sloths on xanax. 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. The smell was a blend of mothballs and the back rack at the Salvation Army thrift store. We feared perhaps there was mouse carcass or something worse in the bottom as my sister tossed ornaments neither of us recognized onto the floorboard. She pulled out a bendable Santa made of fabric and carrying a green pack, one I only vaguely recalled seeing on a shelf in my childhood home, well after I’d moved out. 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 and wrapped it around her gift, tying an extra gauzy red ribbon from my hostess gift around it for that added festive look.

When we arrived at our cousin’s apartment, the merriment was well under way and our presents were added to the pile under the tree. We filled our wine glasses and mingled a bit with guests we’d never met and checked out my cousin’s boyfriend’s paleo-platters. A vegetarian, I skipped over the tray of seasonal barbequed reindeer and grabbed a handful of baby carrots as the present exchange game began.

You know how “White Elephant” exchanges go, some people bring gag gifts like an Obama Bobble Head or the Mr. T in Your Pocket, others offer useful items like a candle or a fancy box of chocolates. If a gift is really good, people can steal it from someone else, forcing that person to open a new package.

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 items rested with their final owners, so the last two “players” had to make a choice between taking a relatively undesirable gift from someone else, OR one of the two lonely presents still under the tree.

One was in a small non-descript 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 scratcher from a thin girl in green flannel, perched on a barstool.

She in turn took a chance on the 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 nearly cried 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. More importantly, the bar was blocked by the crowd and we were getting 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 to reveal the equally old, musty Santa and exclaimed in dismay, “I should have taken the poop spray!”

And I watched as he flippantly tossed the smelly Santa back under the tree. A part of me almost reached out to save that Santa, but my sister and her husband were making their way to the door.

It wasn’t until we were driving home that it hit me. Even if that Santa held no specific memories for me, he had once been held by my mother. She had purchased him or been gifted him and displayed the bendable Santa amidst the garland that was now adorned with cobwebs in dad’s attic. He was one of the last things she touched as we tried to make her final Christmas as normal as possible, playing old holiday records and baking gingerbread as mom sat, weak in her chair by the fireplace. And I, a collector of Santas, now desperately wanted him back! I called my cousin the next day. “I don’t see him anywhere,” she said, “He’s not in the trashcan. I’ll keep an eye out.” Of all the Santas I have in my collection, the one I most wish I had is the one I let slip through my hands.

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As told at Story Salon on December 18, 2019, The Otter Story Hour December 7, 2020 and at the Burbank Cultural Arts Commission's Artist Mixer on November 30, 2022.

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