By Alan Resnick / Detroit
My side of our family conducts two grab bags a year. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (which many in my household would say is accurate), I’m not a big fan of either. The gifts are mostly useless and sometimes literally garbage. After each event I promise myself “Never again,” but invariably get cajoled, guilted, and sucked into participating again the next year.
One grab bag occurs during Hanukkah, which runs for eight days. We celebrated as a family on Sunday, December 5 this year, after a one-year hiatus due to Covid-19. Our annual party consists of lighting the menorah, sharing a holiday buffet meal, and the infamous grab bag.
Our grab bag rules are very straightforward. Each family member draws a folded slip of paper containing a unique number out of a bag or hat. The person drawing “1” goes first. He or she gets to select from any of the gifts strewn among the coffee tables in the middle of the room. Some are wrapped, while others are in gift bags. Easy-peasy, right?
Some wise guy always decides it will be great fun to pack their present in a series of progressively smaller boxes like Russian nesting dolls, so we all get to watch the lucky winner spend five minutes opening box after box and tearing through packing peanuts and bubble wrap invariably to find a coffee mug.
The person drawing “2” goes next. After picking their gift, they have the option of keeping it or, if they prefer the gift that the first person selected, they can trade. This process continues until everyone has selected a gift or taken one from someone else. The person drawing “1” then gets the chance to select from any of the gifts.
So, the best numbers to have are ”1” because you get any gift you want, and the higher numbers because there are fewer chances that the gift you selected will be swiped by a loved one. But if you’ve drawn something like “2” or “3” you’re pretty much hosed and might as well spend the remainder of the event staring at your phone and deleting old emails or checking your Twitter feed. You’ve either selected a crummy gift that no one else wants or something that is going to be stolen.
I’ve found over the years that there is a certain strategy to selecting gifts. You want to fly under the radar and select something that you have some desire for, yet will not attract the attention of anyone else. Selecting cash, scratch-off lottery tickets, or a Starbucks gift card is the equivalent of pasting a sign on your forehead that says, “Steal this.”
My wife rolled the dice this year at number 13. She traded the acrylic salt and pepper shakers she originally selected for 25 $1 dollar coins. I told her that she would never hold onto the coins, as there were eight more people yet to pick gifts. But she snuck through and went home with the loot. Picking at number 19, I left with a ceramic knife set that I’ll likely rarely use, but was preferable to holding onto my original selection of a slot-machine bank.
The rules for the gifts are also very basic. The retail price of the gift needs to be at least $25 dollars. It is perfectly acceptable to use store coupons toward the purchase, either to go on the cheap and spend less than the minimum or to upgrade to a fancier present. And the gifts should be appropriate for both males and females and for family members who range in age from the upper 20s to almost 80.
These criteria result in mostly bland, safe, and forgettable gifts, such as insulated coffee mugs or collections of assorted teas, or prized things like the aforementioned gift cards. But every year there are a few family members who either do not comprehend or simply choose to ignore these simple criteria.
This Hanukkah there were three gifts that fell outside the established guidelines. One was a gift consisting of 20 bath bombs and a small, quilted pillow apparently designed to function as a headrest while leaning back and luxuriating in the bathtub. The second was clearly a women’s coin purse that contained $15 in cash. And the third was set of six pairs of Ralph Lauren Polo men’s socks.
As it turned out, the last gift that was opened were the men’s socks. Fortunately, the person who opened the gift was a man. But–and I swear on a stack of latkes that this is true–the man is a double-amputee. Luckily, he has a sense of humor and laughed when he unwrapped his gift and saw the socks. Needless to say, he did not keep them; he traded for the women’s coin purse with the cash in it.
Now I have six months of nervous anticipation before the second grab bag, which occurs in summer during part of a family barbecue. The rules for the summer grab bag are the same, but the gifts are infinitely worse. This is the dreaded “white elephant” grab bag
The gift rules could not be clearer: bring a new gift that for which you have no use or need. It can be something you purchased, but regifting is also perfectly acceptable. No doubt some of the gifts opened during our Hanukkah party will reappear next summer. This Hanukkah there were two giant pepper mills given away and I’m betting at least one of them rears its ugly head come July or August.
Once again, though, there are family members who do not comprehend or simply flout these guidelines. For them, the idea of a white elephant gift is defined as “bring any old piece of crap lying around your house.” One summer I received a pair of cheap used slippers like those that would be found in an upscale hotel room along with a plastic ice bucket displaying the Holiday Inn logo.
My cousin once received a variety of half-full bottles of assorted household cleaners. And another relative opened a gift to find a popcorn maker that obviously was not new. The person who brought this “gift” actually announced: “We only used it a couple of times and this was easier than returning it.” These are not white elephant gifts, but rather things that people were too lazy to throw out in the garbage.
I told my wife after the last summer grab bag in 2019 that I was done. Call me privileged or snobbish, but I have no need for my relative’s trash. Then again, it’s only December and I have six or seven months to calm down before the next grab bag. And I’ll probably forget about the ceramic knives now that they’ve been shoved into a drawer, so I’m good to go for the next white elephant.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.