Parent Pathways

Parent Pathways: I’m dreaming of a white elephant gift-exchange Christmas

December 22, 2013 

In my family, re-gifting during the holidays is a mandate, not a secret we try to hide with fluffed-up bows and new wrapping paper.

We call it giving “white elephants,” which means you give something you already have.

To clarify, it doesn’t have to be something given to you that you’ve never used. It can be something you’ve inherited or something you have that another person has always admired.

It can’t have been bought within the past year. Well, that’s not entirely true, but more on that later.

I should add also that the annual white elephant gift exchange doesn’t apply to my entire family. It’s between four women and three generations: My mother is in her late 70s, I’m 42, and my sister is 52; my niece is 22.

What started as a cost-saving measure a few years ago is now my favorite Christmas ritual. A few days before Christmas, we all gather for a girls’ lunch with fresh fruit and light appetizers. Then, the unwrapping begins.

There are a few different categories under which our white elephant gifts qualify, and new ones are invented when the occasion arises:

Teachable-moment gifts

These are gifts that impart wisdom and family history. A couple of examples:

Silver dollars: My mother gave these to all of us one Christmas. The coins dated from the mid-1920s. Turns out, my paternal grandparents won them in Las Vegas in the 1940s after driving across the country.

Santa Clauses: When my sister and I were growing up, my mom collected Santa Clauses and would display them on the mantle. She had nesting Santa dolls, a Santa with hinged wooden legs, tall, skinny Santas and short, fat Santas – each of them with a story.

We were delighted last year when Mom started passing them down, and now we display these Santas in our own homes.

‘Gotta-have’ gifts

This category basically grants you an entire year to beg for anything you just “gotta have” that is owned by another person in your gift group. Think of it as intimate window shopping coupled with genuine harassment.

Mosaic soup tureen: My mother gave a beautiful soup tureen to my sister one Christmas as a white elephant. I whined about that tureen for an entire year until my sister finally gave it to me the next year.

It was a wonderful surprise, as I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted it. It sits front and center on my dining room table.

Silver bracelet: After about six months of flattery, my sister finally took the hint and gave my mom the beautiful silver bangle she’d been admiring.

Boutique towel: My niece gave me a fuzzy wrap-around towel for my birthday two months before Christmas. I could tell how much she loved it when she gave it to me; she fingered the fabric and showed me the trim and how to fasten it.

It dawned on me this 20-something young woman would put it to much better use than I would, and that’s how it became hers.

Useful gifts

The truth is, finding the perfect white elephant gift for each person takes a lot of thought. It isn’t always easy, but it is interesting, and you remember a lot about the person as you struggle to find a white elephant.

Books: Always a good choice. I gave my mother a collection of inspirational faith-based quotes that helped me through a rough time and, in browsing my bookshelf, I found a novel by Joyce Carol Oates I thought my sister would love. My niece received a book by Wally Lamb, one of my favorite authors.

‘Cherry-on-the-sundae’ gifts

OK, here’s where we break the no-buying rule. But we don’t start out buying. We gather our white elephant gifts and then add a thoughtful brand-new gift, to be opened last, that will cap off the day.

Pashmina scarf: My sister gave everyone in our group one of these last year, and my niece gave us all a tutorial on how to tie them into cool styles to wear with coats and jackets.

Bling: This is the fun stuff – rhinestone-studded keychains, custom earrings and pins, bejeweled calculators, yummy-smelling candles and hand soaps and whatever else that catches your fancy.

The real gift

Truthfully, our white elephant gifts are just a cover. The real gift, in fact, is the story that accompanies each item, old or new – where and when you got it and how it reminded you of the recipient.

The white elephants always get us talking and connecting in a way we simply might not have done over store-bought gifts.

On the day we exchange white elephants, we are three generations of women, catching up, growing up and learning a bit more about what makes us family.

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