White Elephant = War

Dear Blue,

It’s Christmas season. This year, we’re celebrating in the frigid tundra of Southern California. Last night, it dropped all the way to 38 degrees. There was almost, ALMOST, frost on the ground. It’s frigid. I had to wear a windbreaker to church this morning.

Next year, if everything goes according to schedule, we will travel to the great state of Kentucky to visit my side of the family. You’ll be less than a year old, but even then, I feel as if I must prepare you for what you will encounter. This will be a constant challenge, keeping you connected to your roots. You are an IriMalaynese Californiatuckian, and we currently have no idea how to make sure you get all of that without losing some of it along the way.

So let’s start with Christmas. It’s a perfect starting point for talking about family. On the California side, your mother’s family Christmas gathering is picturesque. Every commercial ever created to convey warm holiday feelings did a case study on her family, Blue. Everyone is warm and kind and generous and thoughtful. We sit down at a nice long table and eat turkey and munch on tortilla strips and then open presents. It’s like the last scene in A Christmas Carol, only there is no Scrooge.

Then you have my side of the family. They are just as nice and kind and generous as your mother’s side but they also like to play games. Every year, we gather at a house, eat cheese, laugh, play poker, eat cheese, play basketball, eat cheese, and then, as the grand finale, we play white elephant.

Generally speaking, in most offices or households where white elephant is played, it’s more for fun than anything else. There is stealing involved in the game, but usually, no one ever steals much because they like their family or coworkers or whomever. Someone spends a few minutes going over the rules, and then the game is over in about five minutes and everyone is happy with their perfume or rice cookers.

Our family, your family, takes their game playing a bit more seriously. Even though it’s a game, rest assured it is not just a game. Hungry, hungry hippos is a game. Candyland is a game. Basketball is a game. White elephant is war. You’ll catch on quick. That, or you’ll be stuck with the crappy set of snowman sculptures every year.

Beginning in November, each year the council of elders (your grandfather and siblings) sends messages back and forth via Facebook outlining the terms of engagement for the upcoming Christmas party. Generally, the hosting party decides on the final rules for the game. It started back in the 90’s and by now, the list of amended and proposed rules is about as long as the US Constitution.

As the family expands, the game gets longer and longer, more and more complex. The number of participants is now pushing three dozen, Blue, and it’s only getting bigger. Which means that if we start the game around 4pm, we generally finish up on New Year’s Eve.

Controversies abound. Your grandfather and your aunt still argue over a crock pot that was the coveted item a decade ago, and recently, your uncle began employing the guerilla tactic of sending in his daughter to steal presents, then standing in front of them with big puppy dog eyes when someone wanted to return the favor. It didn’t do any good. Some crocodile tears are not going to stop anybody.

One year, your grandfather was so excited when he won a bunch of lottery tickets in a shoebox. When he began scratching them off, he shot up his eyes in surprised, gasped, and proclaimed, “I JUST WON 10,000 DOLLARS!!!” He was shocked. For a few minutes, he was completely speechless, giddy with his dumb luck. Then he turned over to read the contest rules and how to get his money. His grin became a frown as uproarious laughter filled the room.

The ticket was a fake. Someone had spent $25 just to have a good laugh your grandfather’s expense, and were this in the era of youtube, his reaction would have gone viral. Like I said, we are a family of game players.

Another year, my first in the game, your grandfather bribed me to steal a knife set for him in order to lock it in place. Within our immediate family, it was secure. He then agreed to steal the gift I wanted. This had all been worked out ahead of time, and sometimes, playing this game is like playing chess. You need to see several moves ahead in order to get where you need to be.

Like I said, it’s war. White elephant is a game of tribes. Factions. We work together and against one another, taking from aunts to give to our wives. It’s a glorious day. You’re going to love it, Blue.

Stealing coveted household appliances from family is what Christmas is all about.

-Dad

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