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November 25, 2008

Brunonia Barry: Books, Cupcakes, Mea Culpas and a Mini Pomeranian Fighting Goldfish

Posted by carol
Novelist Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader, is getting us into the holiday spirit with this story of how her family's Christmas gift-giving tradition turned into a book club. Click here for Brunonia's blog, "The Bru-Haha," and if you'd like to read her previous post, click here.

The Barry family is a savory mix of high emotions, quirky personalities and a healthy helping of New England sarcasm. As the family has grown, gift-giving has become more costly and time-consuming, so one year we decided that while the children would still receive huge piles of gifts, the adults would pick a name out of a hat at Thanksgiving and purchase a Christmas gift for that person that cost no more than thirty dollars. The pressure was intense because each person was receiving only one gift, so you had to get them something they actually wanted. And since the family was now spread out across the country, it was often difficult to know that Uncle Mort had stopped playing golf 8 years ago or that Whitney's new boyfriend didn't like gift certificates for electronics because he hated to buy batteries for environmental reasons.

And so, at Thanksgiving, when we chose our names out of the hat, we also began swapping "suggested" (i.e. don't get me anything but this) gift ideas. They ranged from a simple request for white cotton socks from cousin Charlie to a mini Pomeranian fighting goldfish (salt water variety) for a niece's former boyfriend whom she was bringing anyway because they had purchased their plane tickets months ago and who knows, maybe they'll get back together again for the fiftieth time. This system started to unravel when everyone realized that you now essentially had a personal shopper bound to do your bidding. For instance, my 80-year-old aunt once requested a pair of non-slip, arch support, felt lined slippers (fuzzy but not too fuzzy) that matched her 15-year-old chenille robe. This meant that you had to go to pick up the robe (2 hour minimum visit), wash it (she's 80 years old, laundry is no longer her forte), and then carry it around with you from store to store while fending off salespeople ("Why don't you just buy her a new robe with matching slippers?"). It only took one holiday season like that for us to realize that the new system wasn't working.

Now, in my family, the saying is "If it's broken, put it in the closet for a few years and maybe it will fix itself." But in this case, drastic measures were needed. We actually had to do something different. So we did what any logical New England family eventually does. We switched to a Yankee swap. It seemed the perfect solution. Everybody buys just one gift. Then, when you are all together, each person picks a number out of a hat and, in order, chooses a wrapped gift. If you happen to love one of the gifts that has already been opened, you can exchange your unopened gift with the person who chose the gift you covet. Simple. Fun. A perfect solution except that we got the rules wrong. In typical Barry fashion, we inadvertently changed the game. Instead of exchanging an unopened gift, we each opened our chosen gift first and then decided whether or not we liked it. If not, we immediately exchanged it for one we liked better. Naturally, this led to more joking, jabs, and once or twice someone actually stormed out of the room. At last, we had found a system that was perfect for us! Could this get any better? Yes! Why? Because this system also had one massive hidden advantage...annual re-gifting! The person who ended up with the most rejected gift from last year would invariably give it again the following Christmas. In fact, for five holidays now we have re-gifted a huge, hideous ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a giant, mutant cupcake that someone made in one of those ill-fated classes that were popping up everywhere in the '90s. It is ugly, enormous and useless. The perfect family holiday gift.

But then, after several years of the Modified Yankee Swap, something changed. I fear that the latest wrinkle in the system might just indicate that we are mellowing with age or growing less sarcastic. Or maybe we just got smart and decided to start bringing gifts that people would actually enjoy, realizing that, if all else failed, you could always choose the gift that you had brought, insuring at least the chance at one good gift that Christmas (even if it was a gift you had to give yourself). In any case, somewhere along the way, we all started to bring the same kind of gift. We started bringing books. Diverse as we may be, our family has one thing in common: we are all insatiable readers. For the last several Christmas seasons, almost every gift under our tree has been a hardcover book. Two years ago, six of us actually brought (and chose to keep) the same book. Thus, the Barry Family Book Club began, giving us the opportunity to meet more often, argue over book choices and mercilessly criticize each other's critical thinking capabilities. We meet every few months and have never been happier.

Last Christmas, I found that I already had copies of all of the books that were offered under the tree, so I chose the cupcake jar as my gift. I can't wait to see the look on my niece's new boyfriend's face this year when I hand it to him in exchange for some really good book that I can't wait to read.

Happy Holidays!

---Brunonia Barry