Pat’s Funny Bone: Confused over a White Elephant?

Pat Van Dyke Columnist, The Friday Flyer

Pat Van Dyke
Columnist, The Friday Flyer

Sometimes this time of year totally confuses me. Having been reared in southern California and then living in the Midwest for 12 years, the entire idea of Christmas often leaves me scratching my head and asking “Why?”

Why do I in California, try to create a “White Christmas” when I know that people in Michigan are packing their bags to escape to Florida?

Why did I donate all of my ugly Christmas sweaters to a thrift store several years ago right before ugly Christmas sweaters became the hottest holiday fashion? They are now so expensive that I can’t afford to buy them back!

But my most perplexing thought concerns “White Elephant Gifts.” As a giver and receiver of White Elephant Gifts, I have a “need to know,” so I went to the most reliable source possible: Wikipedia. What the red volumes of World Book Encyclopedia was to the 50’s, Wikipedia is now.

Historically, the term derives from the story that the kings of Siam would make a present of a white elephant to acquaintances whom they considered obnoxious. Their goal was to ruin that person by the maintenance cost of owning a white elephant.

Several years ago, Pete and I discovered how serious some people take the White Elephant Gift Exchange. We were all set for fun, but we didn’t realize that many people, such as Hank and Emma, were there to make a couple of deals and come out as winners.

Our “White Elephant Parties” in the Midwest always consisted of finding the most useless, ugly item in your home or barn and having someone else take it to their home. The gifts included worn horse collars, dented milking buckets, a pair of old boots, or a shovel without a handle. The goal was to obtain the most undesirable gift and save it to reappear the next Christmas. There were no winners!

Shortly after moving to southern California, we found ourselves invited to a “White Elephant Gift Exchange.” We were excited about the possibility of having the chance to take something totally useless from our home and have another person acquire it for their home. We hoped that it would be so useless that it would make its reappearance for years to come.

The day before the White Elephant Gift Exchange, we scoured our home for appropriate donations. We considered a flat bicycle tire, a cedar box with a broken hinge which read “Trees of Mystery,” and a box of discarded ties from Pete’s first years in the ministry.

Our search halted when we opened a box of Christmas decorations that had been stored in our attic for the summer. We found two large matching four inch candles which, when lying on their side, had melted into two eight inch standing columns. To add to their charm, both candles had become the final resting place of ants, flies, and gnats (not to mention the Christmas glitter). They were an example of our Canyon Lake summer heat making it even look worse than it did before. We knew we had a winner.

We carefully wrapped them up separately and brought them to the party. Two gifts, two great laughs, two happy people.

The evening started fine with a great meal and lots of fellowship, but then came the time for the highlight of the evening, “The Gift Exchange.” The gifts were piled high on the tables in the center of the room. People were asked to sit at one of the 12 tables representing the month of their birth.

Pete was assigned to the February table, right across from Emma, perhaps the most opinionated woman at the event. You never had to ask Emma how she felt about a situation. She always told you…..over and over again.

When the gift exchange started, we suddenly realized we were in trouble. All of the gifts were good stuff! There were a few odd items, but the bulk of them were things that people would actually use. Unwrapped was an electric frying pan, a milk glass vase, and angel Christmas ornaments. The only gift that I felt was in line with our useless gift was a freshly baked fruit cake.

From the October table, I signaled to Pete to choose one of the candles, and I would choose the other one. We agreed to act shocked so that no one knew we had brought the candles. But we knew our plan had a few snags: I was number 32 and Pete was number 46.

Emma was number 15. She proudly walked over to the table, selected one of our candles and unwrapped it while the 49 other party goers looked on. The look on her face when she saw the candle was priceless! I hid my face and started laughing. Pete turned bright red and held his breath. He knew that Emma was going to return to her assigned seat which was located right next to him.

For the next five minutes, Emma loudly complained to Pete making comments such as: “Who would bring something like this?” “There’s no way that anyone will want to trade their gift for this!” All the while, I’m at the October table doubled over in laughter.

Then the impossible happened. Number 23 was called. Hank rose out of his seat at the November table, marched over to the gift table, and unwrapped a package only to discover another candle exactly like the one his wife had chosen.

By now, I am laughing so hard that I am crying only to see Pete attempting to control his laughter and at the same time be serious while he is trying to comfort Emma after she shouts, “Oh, no, there’s another one!” After several minutes of uncontrollable laugher, he manages to say, “Well, at least you now have a matching pair.”

The rest of the evening is a blur; but somehow, someway, Emma and Hank had made a couple of successful trades and happily left with a cookie jar and an 8-track-tape of Lawrence Welk.

And how successful were Pete and I? After some ingenious trading, we left with a pair of eight inch Christmas candles complete with an infestation of bugs and glitter along with a memory that still brings us joy and laughter 37 years later.