Ugly gift contest

Some families have sweet, wholesome traditions of hanging their stockings by the fireplace while little ones run amok in footie pajamas; others leave cookies for Santa on a special plate while trimming the tree and singing Deck the Halls; in my family we have a new ritual: the annual ugly gift contest. This is the second year we’ve scoured yard sales and thrift stores to vie for the prize: an ugly bargain.

The tradition got off to a rocky start last year when my entry was confiscated by officials at Logan Airport for being too ugly. OK, not really, but you can read the story here. This year, I skipped the whole flying thing and drove to Virginia for Christmas. I wasn’t taking any chances. With my ugly presented nestled safely in my luggage in the backseat, the TSA couldn’t touch me.

Crowning the winner would be tricky as everyone in the family offered a contender. How would we determine, impartially, who won? We tossed around the idea of a secret ballot, but when the nominees were unveiled all at once on the table, one thing became clear: no vote was necessary. We had a clear winner.

My entry: evil-eyed moon in gross mustard color with flexible joints

My entry: evil-eyed moon with flexible joints in gross mustard color. Third place.

Mom's entry: an undeniably ugly figurine / statue thing with sea life in relief, appropriately rendered in the letter "U" for ugly.

Mom’s entry: an undeniably ugly figurine / statue thing with dolphins in sculptural relief, appropriately rendered in the letter “U” for ugly. Runner-up.

My sister and brother-in-law's entry: a flamingo orb with a neon flashing and glowing ball set in an urchin-like vessel.

My sister and brother-in-law’s entry: a flamingo orb with a neon flashing and glowing ball set in an urchin-like vessel. Winner.

Yeah, the last one. While the orb (?) was the original gift—ugly enough on its own—my brother-in-law stumbled on a starfish . . . receptacle (?) that housed the flamingo egg (?) nicely. We still don’t know what to make of it. My mom tried to give an award to the winning couple from a bag of seemingly regifted items; the winners declined more crap.

In many ways I was the loser: not only did my moon come in last, it also garnered a few likes from the crowd, which was dispiriting. Regardless, I’m still calling it a victory, because when I packed up the car to come home, not one piece of that junk was in my trunk.


Ugly gift contest

My family and I instituted a twist on gift-giving this year: the ugliest gift contest. Avid yard sale shoppers, we knew other people’s treasures (ahem) would yield plenty of contenders on the cheap. My mom, with no hesitation, nabbed hers in June: squat Indian corn candle holders. The $1 price tag seemed exorbitant, but she could hardly bargain using the truth. And it was hard to lie. “Oh, these are just daaarling.” 

I wanted to share a picture with you, but the candle holders have mysteriously disappeared (interesting), so you’ll have to use your imagination. The candle holders have turned up, so now you can judge for yourself:

I knew immediately when I spotted mine:

But the showering elephants never made it to the Christmas gathering. It was so ugly it was confiscated at the airport. I know, I know: “ugly” is not on the prohibited list, but you know what is? Snow globes.

“Seriously?” I asked the TSA agent. “That’s way less liquid than my trial-sized shampoo.”

“Yeah, I think it’s the liquid they use,” he said, giving it the once over, and, to his credit, not sneering.

“It’s distilled water!” I may have made a snow globe once in my Martha Stewart days.

“Come on, that is not on the list,” I tried.

“Actually, I think it is,” he said.

I fought on despite the fact that I knew there was no way he was bending federal law for me, but at some point, I started to enjoy it. This guy had to wonder why this God-awful snow globe was so important to me when it was ugly.

“My mom’s gonna be so disappointed,” I sighed.

“Do you want to check it in your luggage or do you want us to dona–” I’m sure as the words came out of his mouth he realized even the TSA wouldn’t be so cruel as to donate a tacky elephant snow globe made in China, and so I let go, into the world of misfit toys and the bin of dangerous items.

Turns out the TSA agent was right. Not only are meat cleavers, hammers, and ice axes prohibited, “Snow globes and like decorations regardless of size or amount of liquid inside, even with documentation” are a no-go.

Still, I’m having a hard time picturing a terrorist on a plane wielding a snow globe. Listen up, Samuel L. Jackson: there’s a movie just begging to be made.

Stuff I did on winter vacation that you don’t care about

I baked some double chocolate chip pumpkin cookies for an amazing cookie swap and almost—almost—went home with more cookies than I could handle. I tried some strange and tasty cookies (cardamom, green tea, goat cheese), gave some away, and shared some at our unusual office Christmas swap.

My co-worker and I chair a fun committee at the office (we’re serious about fun) and this year instituted a white elephant Yankee swap. Gifts could be small, preferably lame, and must be derived from one’s office. I wrapped up a CD and a skull and bones eraser and unwrapped a plant that was whisked away in the swap. I ended up with a testy wireless mouse that I had unloaded months earlier on my co-worker. Ah, the circle of office life.

I read more issues of Rachael Ray’s Every Day magazine than I care to admit. She’s chipper that one, but she puts out a good magazine.

Every year I make my sister a calendar with photos I’ve taken, surreptitiously, of her dog, Molly, in various states of ridiculousness. This year’s theme was “What’s on Molly’s head?” What was on Molly’s head, you ask? A colander, apple, myriad stuffed animals, coffee filters, salad bowl, and a hat. Doesn’t it seem like she really, really enjoys it?

On yet another mild January day, I walked through the near-barren orchard and watched a hawk pluck a mouse from the field, the scent of sour apples lingering.

I read some good books over vacation but the best one by far, Salvage the Bones, took me through the last days of the year. More on that in my upcoming book wrap-up.

I pressed my face to the window watching for deer in my sister’s backyard. She and her husband spot deer posses traipsing through the yard, their hoof prints pricking the yard. I’ve yet to see one of these phantom deer.

My sister and her husband took me on a hike through the woods in the backyard where the famed deer live. Sometimes a hike can be a walk.

I Christmas shopped with my mom, a near-70 Energizer bunny, and had to sit, more than once, with the old people on the bench of the outdoor shopping center while she forged on.

I rented a million movies and finally saw The Muppets and appreciated the numerous nods to the 70s and 80s and the fact that there are enough lovers and dreamers who welcome back the Muppets with a big furry hug.

Give a virtual gift

Sure, it’s post-Christmas and we’re at the height of a recession, but it’s never too late to give your friends a little something special.

Last year, I introduced the idea of giving holiday presents that are easy on the wallet: virtual gifts. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to find the perfect gift when you’re not constrained by a budget or real money or real gifts. So when I spot that tricked-out cycle my brother-in-law would love, I can email it to him. Sure, he doesn’t get the joy of opening it, riding it, or actually touching it, but I don’t have the pain of dropping $600+ or figuring out how to ship it to him without shelling out another $600.

My friend whose dream it is to swim with the whales would be getting this lovely whale papercut if I were a more generous friend. Dream on, friend.

I have a friend who would like to own a place in Brookline that’s bigger than a crawlspace. Done! She’d love a 2-bedroom, but there’s no need for restraint in the virtual world, so I picked up this sweet little pad for her that comes with a library (uh, don’t start packing).

Merry Christmas!

To my friend obsessed with bacon, I send virtual bacon jam. In this case, a virtual gift also helps his cholesterol.


Seven good things about less Christmas

This year, my family and I have decided to ease up on the gift-giving chaos that is Christmas in America, and I couldn’t be happier. Allow me to enumerate the reasons.

1. I just saved a paycheck.

2. Those days spent cruising the mall, not to mention the parking lot? I just got my life back.

3. I don’t need more stuff. In fact, I want less stuff for Christmas; I’m putting that on my list. Less stuff for Christmas, please.

4. No more cruising the aisles of CVS on Christmas Eve wondering if a wind-up talking reindeer is a suitable gift for say, everyone.

5. Wrapping? No human can fold those stupid flaps properly anyway.

6. Heading off a green crisis at seeing all that wrapping paper strewn about, wrinkled and unsalvageable, that the dog tried to eat anyway.

7. No luggage to check, which means more room in the carry-on for books. Underwear and books. Because really, that’s all you need for Christmas.

Virtual gifts

When you care enough to send the very best, but can’t afford to, it’s fun to send your friends a link to gifts you’d send them if you could. So this Christmas, I’m sending virtual gifts.

For example, I saw this unique Ira Glass finger puppet on recently and sent it to my friend Katie, who shares my addiction to This American Life and probably my mad crush on the nerdy fella.

I’m always finding gifts for my ocean-loving friend Kim like this plate featuring her favorite whale: the humpback.

Then I found this great sculpture for my friend whose initials are HA. But seeing as I spotted it while window shopping at M2L, a store with spare but expensive inventory, she’ll have to make do with a photo.

Virtual gifts say I care and know you so well that you would love this gift, but I’m frugal, so don’t hold your breath.