Gift Exchange Custom

Christmas Gift Exchange

Our family partakes in a gift exchange during every Christmas celebration, on both my mother’s and father’s side.  It is interesting to note the similarities that have arisen between the two exchanges.  Both contain a set of rules and special items so complex that they could probably be considered rituals in most circles.  The basic rules are as follows: each participant brings a wrapped gift and draws a number. The gifts are placed in the center of the room.  Starting from number one, each participant then selects a gift to open.  The next gift selector has the option of either stealing an open gift from somebody who has gone before him or opening a new gift.  In the case where a person has their gift stolen, they then get to steal another’s gift or open a new gift from the center of the table.  There are no “steal-backs;” that is, a person cannot steal the same gift back from the person who has just stolen it from him.  In the case of popular gifts, many are stolen multiple times.  However, the rule stands that the third owner of a given gift is granted immunity – he is the final owner of it.  Here is the first difference arises.  In the exchange on my father’s side the third thief of a gift get to keep it.

Both gift exchanges also contain several special items.  Although these special items are essential for the tradition of the exchange, nobody wants to get them.  On my mother’s side there is this ancient “Look at My Masks” children’s mask making kit.  Still unopened, this curious kit is a strange amalgamation of random paper cutouts with which one is supposed to construct masks out of.  Whoever is unfortunate enough to select this wrapped gift from the table is always greeted with ridicule and laughter when he opens it.  Every year this kit returns to the gift pool, brought back by its disgruntled owner.  As such, this mask kit is often disguised in extra packaging or the old boxes of other products in order to mask its true identity.  In a similar fashion, the gift exchange on my father’s side also contains a gift no one wants to get – an empty box.  There would always be one empty box on the table which contained no gift.  It was sometimes weighed down by rocks, gravel, or newspaper in order to appear as a legitimate gift.  Whoever opens this humorous gift returns with an empty box, often in another shape, the next year.  This last year, however, this gift has been changed.  Upon seeing the confused tears of one of my young cousins the previous year, my aunt decided to place a large box with a consolatory gift certificate inside.  While this is a nice gesture, the tradition has now been broken.

Trends have developed according to these rules.  Certain individuals buy gifts that they would like to get themselves and then pick their own gifts out of the gift exchange.  These same people often try to hide their gifts after they open them in order to avoid having them stolen by others.  These individuals are most often young cousins who have picked out their toys and want to keep them.  It is humorous to note the difference between the cousins – some are fearfully sitting on their new action figures, hiding them from prying eyes, while other advertise their newly acquired chinaware to every subsequent gift opener

I was taught the intricate rules of these gift exchanges when I was very young; in fact, I cannot even remember being specifically taught them.  For as long as I can remember, we partook in these rituals during every Christmas gathering.  On Christmas Eve for my mother’s side and on Christmas Day for my father’s side, the entire gathering would be building up for the gift exchange.  My mother said she could not remember the origin of the rules either, simply telling me that she had always done it as a child with her parents and relatives.  My father expressed a similar sentiment, adding that as he was the youngest of eight, many traditions were not explained to him, but that he simply picked them up by observation.  Each gathering is relatively sizable, probably numbering about thirty for my mother’s side and usually around forty for my father’s gatherings.  These include relatives, fiancés, and friends from all over the county.  While most live in California, some fly in from Illinois, Nevada, Washington, and Arizona to attend.  Both of my parent’s families grew up here in California, though they are of Chinese descent.  It is doubtful that this exchange originated in China, as they did not commonly celebrate Christmas there.

Each gift exchange also demonstrates the same affinity for the number three.  On my mom’s side, it is only the third owner of a gift who is able to surely keep his gift.  On my father’s side, the third thief of a gift is the final owner.