White Elephant Hunting

by Banned Library in


The holidays are coming up and a few of you will be tempted to have holiday parties. Everyone in the library will show up in their worst Christmas sweater which means Brenda will just be wearing a potato sack because she doesn't get it and for her the worst Christmas meant the cellar. That sentence took a dark turn.

    Anyway, there will be dip and chips and games. Oh the games we play at holiday parties. There's pin the tail on the donkey, a time honored game in the library because fuck it, if we can't hand the kids small spikes anymore and get them drunk on spins we might as well. There's bobbing for apples which often fails because the break room sink stopper has a crack and won't stay full. And there's White Elephant.

    I do not know why it is called white elephant. As far as I know, the name could be racist as most things usually are. I know it has nothing to do with the majestic large land mammal that populates the quarter acre down at the zoo. That poor sad bastard has received few gifts in his lifetime, much less the gift of freedom or choosing to steal from a white guy a gift of twenty dollars or less.

    It has other names. Dirty Santa. Yankee swap. Make Brenda Cry Over a Cutlery Set. Call it what you want, but I send you warning: This game has consequences.

    For all of you not in the know, White Elephant is a gift exchange game. Everyone brings some cheap wrapped thing that goes in a pile. People take turns picking from the pile or stealing what the person before them has unwrapped. Rules and participation may vary, but in the end everyone walks away with concrete knowledge of how much of a dick everyone else can be over some bullshit.

    I present to you my first and last participation in such a game as a warning. Do not let this happen to you.

    Warning, this story features granny on teenager violence.

    I was twelve or so when a friend invited me to his granny's house for a holiday gathering. They were playing White Elephant so my mom picked out some piece of crap from the Dollar Store, wrapped it up, and sent me on my way.

    Right away things went bad. They chose who went first by passing around a bowl of paper slips. When my hand came out and I opened my paper, a black spot appeared. Who the hell uses a pirate death sentence in a holiday game, I ask you?! Evil bastards, the lot of them. Especially the old lady in the corner with the cane.

    Anyway, as first up I picked a box from the pile. I unwrapped it and held up my prize. Silence filled the room.

    "Granny, why did you put that in there?" a cousin said.

    Granny said, "Well, I didn't know who to give it to so I thought it would be fun for you all."

    I had no idea what it was. Still don't. My memory has faded but my confusion about that long lost day remains. I do know that it was important and has some significance to the family.

    I walked back to my place beside my friend carrying the thing. My friend reassured me that as everyone went around the circle, somebody would want this family treasure.

    Not one damn person came to steal from me. One cousin got a flashlight that could blink to signal for help. Another cousin stole that, and the first cousins then got a mosquito net. An uncle got the flashlight, and so the second cousin got the net and over and over it went. Twenty or so people, laughing and joking, fake arguing over all the petty crap.

    My friend beside me elbowed me and laughed when someone unwrapped a pile of fake dog poop. It was his offering to this sacrifice. Then came his turn.

    He stole the flashlight from his uncle.

    "What the hell?" I said.

    "It blinks," he said, turning on the flashlight that did, indeed, blink.

    What did not blink was the uncaring, always watchful eyes of Grandma from her corner. She held her cane in one hand and a jello mould she had stolen from someone in the other. Her eyes, an uncanny old person blue, bore into my soul.

    Then I had an idea. I ate jello. Mom would like that mould for Christmas. And if I stole from Grandma, as was my right as the first player to pull from the pile and therefore last to get to steal, she would get her very important but less than twenty dollar thing back.

    So I crossed the room and offered her the thing with one hand and held out my other for the jello mould.

    I did not see the cane coming. Like rain on a summer day, the blows pelted me with a fury and violence almost beautiful as I was unaware. That old woman hit me about the knees, stomach, and chest over and over, catching me once good on the chin.

    My vision clouded with flight or fight. When I came to myself, I sat beside my friend and held a jello mould. Granny had gone to bed, tired from beating me senseless. Two of my friend's uncle's also looked tired and I believe they wrestled that old woman back to her room.

    What's the point of this story? It could be that sometimes games are more than they appear. That tradition and culture extend only so far and that intrusions are met with violence. Or maybe I am just telling you not to play that game because it makes me feel weird, like a little old lady hitting me with a cane because that's what happened.

    My friend's grandma died a few years after that. I hope she figured out the right relative to give that thing to, whatever it was. At the funeral, everyone laughed at the story of her beating me senseless with the cane. I offered them jello.