Christmas morning always had a very definite ritual feel to it when I was growing up, and I’d like to share that with you.
The first thing Christmas morning, my mother, my father, and I would assemble to open our presents. Breakfast consisted of shortbread cookies and egg nog, consumed between gifts. I would wear the Santa hat and distribute the stockings; we would take turns removing presents until they were empty, then turn to the gifts under the tree. One by one, with my mother’s guidance as to which gift was next, I would hand these out too, and we would take turns opening them, until there were none left. Usually the last couple of presents were mine. The whole process took a couple of hours.
As an added level of complexity, on the tags to each gift was written a (very cryptic) clue to the contents. Before opening each gift, the recipient was expected to make a fairly precise guess as to what the gift was. I learned a lot, over the years, about shaking gifts to check for fluid and moving parts, running my fingernail across edges to feel for pages, and the relative weights of different kinds of book paper.
These are traditions that I continue to uphold when it comes to gift-giving, particularly at Christmas: the strict order of presents, and the guessing game.
Of course, the clues are never quite straightforward. If they are decipherable at all, they usually require following a particularly schizophrenic chain of word-association. Often, they make specific reference to something that only the recipient would understand (or, if I am having a particularly stressful holiday, something that the recipient could never hope to understand until well after opening the gift).
For example, I have drawn ice floes, footprints, and snipped a phrase from a Weakerthans song to hint at a mug with penguins on it.
“It’s not lupus” was my mother’s only indication that she was getting Hugh Laurie’s new novel this year—all the more obscure since she has never seen an episode of House, and is familiar with Laurie only from Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder, and the like.
I usually leave my Christmas shopping until the last minute, not least because I am tempted to drop hints as soon as I have made the purchase. One of my oldest and dearest friends was once unlucky enough to get a Christmas present that I had purchased well in advance; thus, the guessing game started several weeks before. Unwilling to fully avoid the subject, I agreed to answer simple yes-or-no questions about the gift.
“Is it an electronic kit of some kind?” “Almost.”
“Could I eat it?” “In dire circumstances, yes.”
The gift, of course, was a Knight Rider t-shirt. I believe my answers were quite straightforward. It does portray an electronic car named Kit. And in the direst of circumstances, a cotton t-shirt can be eaten.
My friend just picked bad questions.
I enjoy giving gifts at Christmastime, or indeed on any occasion that calls for the giving of gifts; but there’s no reason I shouldn’t get a little something in return. I’m not perfect at picking gifts, so I can’t always count on gratitude. However, I’m pretty much guaranteed bewilderment, and that makes for better pictures in any case.