Choosing a present for a white elephant gift exchange is a daunting endeavor. Historically, the term “white elephant” (which apparently originates from royal gift-giving customs surrounding real white elephants in Southeast Asia) has referred to unwanted possessions that are difficult to get rid of. Wrap your shit up in red and green wrapping paper and make it someone else’s problem!
The way my family plays it, though, white elephant exchanges are not opportunities to avoid a trip to the Goodwill donation center. Every Christmas, there’s an unspoken—yet fierce— competition for the most ridiculous gift, and earning that title requires work and a little bit of money. A novelty mug or Chia Pet is okay. A singing plastic reindeer that poops jellybeans, or perhaps toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on it is better.
Over the years, my family’s annual white elephant exchange has been the backdrop to screaming matches between adult relatives and children, as well as the subsequent catharsis that can only come from publicly hashing it out with your fully-grown aunt over who gets to keep the whoopie cushion with a $15 Starbucks gift card inside. The game provides an arena for hidden family traumas to reveal themselves in intergenerational feuds and alliances. People have left crying on several occasions. A couple of marriages may have ended. It’s a great time.
Last Christmas, things felt a little different. The party, held at my parents’ house in Colorado, was smaller, owing to inclement weather and conflicting travel plans. It was also the first Christmas without two of my grandparents: My mother’s father (known as “Papa” to my sister and I) and my father’s mother (AKA “Amma”) both passed away the previous February. (The deaths were unrelated, but coincidentally occurred within about 24 hours of each other.)
We still played white elephant, but instead of an all-out brawl, people were noticeably more tender with each other. There was no crying; people kept their passive-aggressive comments to themselves. I ended the game with a puzzle that seemed to be missing three pieces, but I chalked it up to a mistake instead of a cruel trick (though, given my family’s mentality around this game, it certainly could’ve been the latter).
When all was said and done, my younger cousin Jake ended up with the best present: A handheld, portable bidet, roughly the size and shape of an electric toothbrush. Everyone “oohed” and “ahhed” at the device, and asked Jake to please refrain from bringing it back the following year as a regift.
“No way, this is mine,” Jake said, heading to the kitchen sink to fill it with water. The bidet was capable of producing quite an intense stream and could serve a double function as a military-grade squirt gun (preferably before its first use).
As I ran from the bidet/water gun, I noticed my parents standing outside in the cold, reading the instructions for a pair of paper “sky lanterns” they’d bought to commemorate Papa and Amma on our first Christmas without them.
My parents had been talking about these lanterns for months, inspired by their beauty after seeing them featured in a Salma Hayek movie. The lanterns are the kind that can float on air, propelled by a small fire at the base of the lantern.
What my parents didn’t know is that the lanterns are banned in dozens of states (including Oregon) as well as several countries due to the inherent fire risk they pose. An article in Wildfiretoday.com—which apparently keeps close track of the legal standing of these lanterns—states that “after [the lanterns] are launched, they are completely out of control and can rise to 3,000 feet, later landing on the ground, in trees, or on structures. They have ignited roofs and started a fire that burned 800 acres in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 2011.”
But they’re legal in Colorado, and from their depiction in the movies, they look lovely and simple enough to operate. It had just snowed, so it seemed unlikely a falling, fiery lantern would light the ground on fire. If one was caught in a tree? That could be a different story.
As other family members noticed my parents (literally) playing with fire in their backyard, the mood became tense.
“Roberta, I don’t think your father would’ve wanted us to burn your house down in his name,” my mom’s mother said to her.
My aunt closed her eyes.
“I can’t watch,” she said.
At this point, my parents had realized the folly of their plan, but were intent on carrying it out anyway. I readied the backyard hose on the jet setting in case I needed to shoot them down. Unfortunately, thanks to subzero temperatures the day before, the outside pipes seemed to be frozen over. But I had another idea.
“Jake! Get that bidet out here!” I called into the house. He came running, armed with what we could now see was so much more than a bidet. It was a potentially life-saving multitool, capable of performing asshole deep-cleaning and putting out fires resulting from well-intentioned memorials for beloved family members.
The lanterns floated a few feet in the air, looking peaceful for a couple seconds before Jake came in with the bidet. We laughed and knew Amma and Papa would be laughing too, and might have been, wherever they are.
That’s the beauty of white elephant. As families change, losing and adding people around the Christmas dinner table, it’s always possible to create new memories. It’s even better if those memories don’t involve starting a forest fire.