My fifth grader Elizabeth had a Secret Pal gift exchange the last day before winter break. Although more politically correct in name, it sucked just as much as the not politically correct Secret Santa.
I had not played Secret Pal-Santa in years and unfortunately for both Elizabeth and me, I did not make the connection between Secret Pal-Santa and the trauma that can be inflicted by its nefarious relative, the White Elephant.
The original White Elephant gift game was not only a fun and comedic bonding experience, but it provided a convenient opportunity to transfer the clutter in your house to someone else’s house. Hate both that ugly statue that your mother-in-law gave you and the lavender perfume from Grandma? Put ’em together in the same bag. Problem solved.
Lamentably, the White Elephant took a turn for the worse about 10 years ago, when people were either too attached to that Chia Pet or too lazy to dig it out and wrap it. Instead folks went out and bought gift cards, food or alcohol, leaving the recipients of the true White Elephant gifts depressed and bitter.
This problem has been slow to be recognized by party organizers across the nation (or at least the state of California) who are in denial and still insist on calling it a White Elephant gift exchange. Most people have enough social cognizance to realize that, despite the name of the game, it is unacceptable to bring a White Elephant gift, particularly when the instructions include spending guidelines.
Still, there’s always that one person who refuses to conform and puts a damper on some poor participant’s holiday cheer. At work, this is usually a temp with nothing to lose or the guy in IT who is using the gift exchange as a means to extract revenge on you for bugging the heck out of him all year.
Three years ago, thanks to one of these people I was the proud owner of a previously-enjoyed Queen CD box set. Not that I have anything against Queen, per se, and if it had been Queen singing the holiday hits, I may had felt differently, but who wouldn’t have preferred the Moose Munch / Jack Daniels gift set?
Familiar as I am with the perils of the White Elephant, I had regrettably not applied this knowledge to Secret Pal-Santa. When Elizabeth came home with a bio sheet on her gift recipient (favorite color, animal, hobby, book, etc.), we put our heads together. The directions were vague, but certainly we were supposed to spend some amount of money on something cool. I took a cue from my friend whose son is in the other fifth grade class and hit the 99 Cent Store, where Elizabeth and I had fun picking out a pretty little box and a necklace and candy to fill it with.
When the Secret Pal-Santa exchange day finally arrived, I couldn’t wait to finish up my PowerPoint, so I could get home from work and hear all about it. As soon as I walked in the door, I sat Elizabeth down to debrief her. She was not very enthusiastic about sharing the details, which I guess had to do with the fact that after all our effort, she only got a miniature cupcake that was suspiciously missing half the icing.
To add insult to injury, the recipient of Elizabeth’s gifts was not impressed with her 99 Cent store treats and was happy to share this fact directly with Elizabeth. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the fact that this pretentious little 10-year old’s bio stated that she loved shopping and iPads. Clearly chocolate and cheap fashion jewelry weren’t going to impress her.
Luckily, there is always revenge. Since I teach the class’s volunteer art lessons, I’m considering what kind of public humiliation I can subject this kid to during the next lesson. (This is why they should screen parents before allowing them to volunteer.)
The key to White Elephants and Secret Pals-Santas-Reindeer-Whatevers is, like most things in life, managing expectations. I think I will suggest that in future years the teacher add a disclaimer and note at the bottom of the instructions stating something to the effect of :
Kids: don’t get your hopes up; your Secret Pal’s parents might be emotionally-unavailable tightwads. If you get more than a crappy pencil drawing with a lot of erasure marks and your name spelled wrong, consider yourself lucky.
Parents: if the recipient of your kid’s Secret Pal gift is a snot-nosed brat, feel free to be an emotionally-unavailable tightwad. Better yet, give that kid a Queen CD box set.