Every November my side of the family kicks off the holiday season by gathering to share good food, good company, and attractively wrapped atrocities. Other families with warped senses of humor have similar gatherings and call them White Elephant exchanges. We call our party simply—THE NIGHTMARE.
Each year I clean my house and put up several tacky plastic trees which I have come to love dearly (Blog to follow!) My guests arrive, we visit, eat lunch, and then gather in the family room in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree surrounded by sometimes oddly shaped but attractively wrapped Presents of Horror. Each person picks a number, and the presents are chosen and opened in that order. There is no stealing or exchanging of wrapped or unwrapped presents—no one would want to!—just a lot of laughter and expressions of horror and dismay as each ghastly present is revealed. (No off-color gag gifts or regifting from the previous year’s Nightmare is allowed.)
When all gifts have been viewed and the first shock has worn off, the voting begins. The giver of the gift with the most votes for nastiest present of the year wins the grand prize. My eldest sister always donates the prize, which is actually something nice. Then we all share who gave what present, were it was found, its cost, and any story connected to the purchase of each fiendish Violation of the Christmas Spirit.
Our gifts are not simply unique, off beat, or tacky. They are disturbing, horrific, creepy—sometimes even panic inducing. We garage sale and thrift shop each year with the upcoming Nightmare always lurking in the back of our minds. When we run across that perfect gift, there is no hesitation, just an overwhelming urge to purchase at the lowest possible price. One year it may be a creepy chalk clown head (which my Mom stored on a shelf at the bottom of the basement stairs after the party, until she had to get rid of it by popular demand. It was freaking out everyone who went downstairs for potatoes.) Another year it might be a spectacularly tasteless five-foot-long oil-spouting swag lamp with scantily clad nymphs in gold plastic. My favorite was the exquisitely wrought “butt brick,” a hefty hunk of wax molded from the bottom half of an ancient bas relief of the three Graces (Hey, it was Art!).
Some gifts were destined to become bizarre garden ornaments or equally distressing household décor because some small child instantly fell in love with them, such as the famous owl lamp with built in peanut dish (or was it an ash tray?) or this year’s fluffy fun fur owl-on-a -stick. Other gifts are quietly deposited in the first available dumpster.
Each gift has its provenance, such as the stuffed rattle snake I found last year and purchased for the princely sum of $3. It was a gift requested by a five-year-old boy whose parents were going away on an anniversary trip to the Southwest. He wanted them to bring back for him a pair of cowboy boots and a rattle snake. They honored both his requests. The snake now graces the science classroom of a Catholic grade school in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Surprisingly, the rattler did not earn me the grand prize that year—I am still bitter.
The first winner of this nightmare competition was what we called “The Bordello Lamp” with its giant, bulbous, amber-glass base with malfunctioning night light and scarlet shade shaped like a saloon girl’s corset and skirt, complete with dingle-berry trim. It had a commanding presence, standing nearly four and a half feet tall. (It ended up becoming an anonymous cabin warming gift at several hunting camps up north.)
The most recent (and I think most repugnant) winner was a set of cattle hooves made into pillar candle holders. (I actually felt my gorge rise when I got my first good look at them. Gulp!) They looked and smelled vile (that rhymes with bile). My sister caught her Golden Retriever slinking off to bury one of the pair in the woods the week before our get together! The aroma that rose from the wrapped gift had our cat Bert sniffing around under the tree as well.
This is definitely not a holiday tradition for the faint hearted, but even my 87-year-old mother looks forward to it annually (amazing considering that she took home a repulsive, grass-skirt-clad coconut monkey this year). Soon four generations will again begin to taunt each other and drop dark hints about the “gift” that will surely earn them the grand prize next year. Season’s Greetings! Begonia