The joy of giving badly

What do you do when you have a good portion of your extended family over for Christmas, they have largely everything they need but there is plenty of extra room under your Christmas tree? You could skip giving them any gifts, of course, which would save everyone a lot of money. Or you could do what me and a number of my siblings do on Christmas: give the gift of the bad.

Bad gift giving is not for every family. If there is a lot of sibling rivalry that still manifests itself in your adult years, it is probably not for your family. The joy of giving badly does not come from offending your family. It comes from finding that special something that (a) you know they would not like (b) is tacky and (c) costs about as much as warm spit.

If you can do a bad gift exchange right, it can be a lot of fun. Particularly if you and your siblings are competitive creatures, finding the baddest bad gift of them all is something of a minor triumph (but probably not something to highlight on your college application). In our house, the procurer of the baddest bad gift wins the trophy. Well, it’s not an actual trophy. It’s a set of slippers, with each slipper shaped like a fish. The fish slippers look, well, dreadful, not because they are old and ragged (they look almost new) but because they are so incredibly tacky. No one in their right mind would want to use them, let alone own them, although the contest winner will sometimes do a celebratory dance in the fish slippers with cameras clicking away.

In theory, the person who gets the fish slippers can hold on to them for one year. The next year they are awarded to the next person to wins the next bad gift contest. In practice, the fish slippers sit at the top of my closet, since invariably the bad gifts are exchanged at our house, generally on Christmas afternoon when remnants of our family in the area descend on our house for conversation and (probably more importantly) gobs of delicious, fattening food courtesy of my spouse.

This custom began sometimes in the early 1990s. Our memories of how it started are rather hazy, but it was likely my sister Mary’s idea (as her sense of humor is particularly skewed). The bad gift exchange neatly solved a number of problems. First, it took care of the problem of finding real gifts for my siblings. Second, it allows us to indulge our competitive spirit. Third, it gives us a great reason to look forward to getting together. Otherwise, the conversation devolves into football (for those few of us into it) and politics. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, giving bad gifts is a lot of fun, both for the giver and the receiver. A truly spectacularly bad gift needs to be singularly inappropriate, hard to find, lacking in taste and dirt-cheap.

If you want to play the game with your family, here are some tips. Here are examples of bad gifts that are not funny: a lump of coal for your stocking, imitation doggy doo doo, fake vomit or political bumper stickers for a party the receiver is not aligned with. Your job as the bad gift giver is to find something much more spectacularly inappropriate. Ideally, the recipient should both laugh hysterically and feel repulsed at the same time.

Where to find bad gifts? The mall is a way too expensive a place to buy a bad gift. $5 per gift should be an upper limit, which is important because most bad gifts tend to end up in the trash later in the evening. I get most of my bad gifts at dollar stores, but thrift stores of any type work as well (try Salvation Army or Goodwill). eBay is great for the eccentric gift, but with shipping it is hard to keep the cost low. Stores like Spencer Gifts are also full of bad gifts, but they tend to be pricey.

The highly competitive bad gift giver keeps a constant watch for bad gifts all year long, and is always ready to buy. This describes my brother Tom who is highly competitive and feels compelled to excel in everything, including bad gifts. His bad gift radar is on all the time. Consequently, he tends to win many of these contests.

You will need some sort of process for determining a winner. We usually do it by paper votes with each person ranking the bad gifts from baddest to least bad, with one being the baddest. You are not supposed to vote for gifts you have given, to keep out the bias. The giver of the worst “gift” with the lowest point score wins possession of the fish slippers, and many hearty congratulations.

This year we invented a new process where we paired two gifts and took a majority vote on each pair to determine the badder gift. This elongated the process considerably, as there were many gifts, hence many rounds to go through and plenty of opportunities for voters to argue why one gift was worse than the other. The winning gift this year came from my nephew Ryan, who is proving to be a genius at bad gift giving. It was a football jersey for his sister Margo. Margo is a skinny little thing who can’t be more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. This jersey from a Goodwill store for some no name team would probably be roomy for a beefy defensive lineman with his protective gear on. Both Ryan and Margo got inside the shirt at the same time and it was still way too large. It also helps that Margo is not particularly into football or jocks so it was not a welcome gift, yet it didn’t offend. Consequently, it was a terrific bad gift. Get it?

My bad gifts were not as good as usual as I was pressed for time. They included: some plastic cockroaches for my sister Mary (she used to live in Florida, where cockroaches are everywhere); a Sylvia Brown book (used of course) taking about the feminine God for my brother Tom (who happens to be an atheist); a Hannah Montana CD for my 21-year old daughter; a pint-sized glow in the dark plastic “lightsaber” for my wife (a Star Wars fan) that turned out to be missing its glow; and a tiny little Hula girl figurine for my brother Mike (who is unlikely ever to get to Hawaii or ever try on a flowered shirt).

What these bad gifts do is provide a central event on an important day, and stimulate laughter and competition. Surprisingly enough, this event that has gone on most years for twenty years, is an effective way to bond at least some of my siblings and I together as we age. (We do have a sourpuss or two who when they show up won’t play.) With my nieces and nephews getting the hang of the game, I suspect the game will outlive us. It may even pass into family lore.

Try it next Christmas. I think you will find that it is way more entertaining than watching the Detroit Lions lose again.

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