The Family Gift Exchange

Our Family Gift Exchange — also known as The Day we Discovered the Real Grinch

 Robert, Dad, Robin, Valerie, Mom and Ross burkhardt in the early 1950s, shortly before the infamous Family Gift Exchange

Robert, Dad, Robin, Valerie, Mom and Ross burkhardt in the early 1950s, shortly before the infamous Family Gift Exchange

 

Christmas traditions abound in December and, growing up, our family had a special one. Every year on December 9, my older twin brothers’ birthday, we drew names out of a hat for a secret gift exchange that would take place on Christmas Eve.

I always wanted my mom to get my name because, even though there was a $1 limit, her gifts were the best. It was also okay if one of my siblings got my name because we each had saved some holiday money with our 25-cent-a-week Christmas Clubs. Just don’t let it be dad, I’d pray. 

Actually, “pray” isn’t strong enough. Beg is more apt. I would give up Bazooka bubblegum and Three Musketeer bars for a year — I’d gladly relinquish my favorite Toni doll to my first-grade arch enemy — ANYTHING just so that dad didn’t get my name.

My father was the dearest man on earth, sweet, kind, compassionate and filled with deep love for his family … until the Family Gift Exchange transformed him into a 20th Century Torquemada with a sprinkling of Satan. Whoever’s name he picked was doomed to have THE WORST Christmas Eve ever. The year I remember best was when Ross was his victim.

As we four kids walked around the festive table on Christmas Eve, we put out our gifts on empty plates and checked to be sure there was also a gift waiting for us. Finding one triggered a louder cheer than Howdy Doody’s Peanut Gallery because it meant dad didn’t have us. Spotting no present at his place, Ross moaned woefully, “He’s got me.” And so the long terrible ordeal began. 

After grace, my father would say, “Valerie, as the youngest, why don’t you open your gift first,” and I would, thanking my mom for a hand-knit blue skating outfit for my Toni doll. Then, “Robin, dear, open yours now.”  In short order, each gift that was on the table had been opened. 

Ross sat there whimpering audibly. Dad said, “Ross, did you honestly think I would forget YOU, my wonderful son?,” pulling from beneath his seat a beautifully wrapped and ribboned box and setting it in front of my brother.

The box held a pair of mom’s pink lace panties. “Oh, I was just kidding,” dad said, handing Ross his next “gift” — a can of Ken’l Ration dog food. My sibs and I would be sitting at the table itching to play with our new toys — a Tiddlywinks game or a shiny Slinky — but we had to wait. Ross’ Noel Nightmare was just underway.

In the middle of the meal, my father would say, “Aha! I just remembered!  I have something in the other room,” and he’d disappear for a minute, returning with a box big enough to hold a basketball.  “My dearest son,” he’d say with a smile, “my kidding is done — here is your real Christmas Eve gift.” It was a crusty dog collar. His sobs escalated.

Over the next half hour, as dad promised again and again, “This is it! The gift you’ve been waiting for!,” Ross received a dirty grey sock, a potholder, a girl’s white bathing cap and then finally, a 3”x5” box wrapped in red paper. 

Inside Ross discovered a brand new jack knife with two blades and black plastic sides manufactured to look like genuine deer antlers. It was the coolest thing we’d ever seen. My siblings and I were green with envy. 

And suddenly, his tears now vanished, Ross’s Christmas Eve became the best ever. 

 

 Robert, Dad, Robin, Valerie, Mom and Ross Burkhardt in the early 1950s.....around the time of this Family Gift Exchange.

Robert, Dad, Robin, Valerie, Mom and Ross Burkhardt in the early 1950s.....around the time of this Family Gift Exchange.