My dad’s family, every year, does an ornament swap.
You might know this game by different names: white elephant, holiday swap, yankee swap. My grandmother always called it a Pollyanna. Everyone who comes to the Christmas Eve party brings an ornament and wraps it up so you can’t see what it looks like. Then everyone, from the toddlers to the great grandparents, picks a number. Then the unwrapping starts. Just don’t get too comfortable with your ornament, because someone might come along and steal it.
There are a lot of strategies when it comes to ornament swap. You can always pretend that you don’t love your ornament, hoping that the competition will take your indifference to mean that maybe the ornament isn’t so great after all. You can try and get people to take your ornament, especially if you unwrapped the ugliest one of all. I kind of like the ugly ones.
There are two rules in Pollyanna: don’t hide your ornament and no tears. Even the littlest kids need to be okay with getting their ornaments stolen and no one in my family is above stealing an ornament from a six year old. Eventually they’ll figure out that the goal is to make friends with someone who has a higher number than you. Cuddle up. Let them know how much you really want that baseball ornament. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll work something out. After all, alliances aren’t even mentioned in the rules.
The ornaments can be beautiful, they can be sentimental, or, often, they can be hideous. Or just plain weird. For a long time there were two ornaments that always came back: the shiny pickle and the Joy shingle. Everyone groans when the pickle comes out of its wrapping, but I think we’re all sort of happy its there. I mean, really. It’s a shiny pickle ornament. What isn’t to love?
The Joy shingle was a, well, shingle. It was pretty, in a rustic decoration sort of way. It had the word joy written across the front, but the back told the real story. Since the mid-90s, we’d been writing the name of whoever “won” the shingle that year. The shingle showed all of us: people who had come and gone, people who would be around forever. My name was on there from maybe 1999?
The shingle didn’t come back last year and no one is quite sure where it got off to. I kind of believe that it will make its way back to us eventually and there will be a gap in the years and we’ll all say, “Remember those years when the Joy shingle was missing?” Or, if it doesn’t come back, maybe we’ll just start writing our names on the shiny pickle.