Every year as the holiday season is thrust upon us, we witness many spectacles. There always seems to be a good Samaritan, anonymous, who gives away money to those in need in a very unexpected way, perhaps by handing it out on street corners or dropping it from a large hotdog shaped dirigible. We witness random acts of kindness like boy scouts carrying large bags of groceries for old people or radio stations agreeing not to play Despocito for 24 hours.
We hear the tinkle of silver bells, the clatter of tiny hooves, the pleas of small children, the sonorous tones of Christmas Carols and the surly grunts of those involved in retail sales. We see houses, cars, shopping malls and odd people decorated with multi-colored lights and tinsel. We see ruddy cheeks, roofs covered in snow (even in Los Angeles, where reality has never gotten in the way of a good time), people wearing red stocking caps, bustling crowds attending holiday parades and the forests denuded of anything green that will fit in the back of an SUV.
All of these harbingers of Yule are at first a sweet reminder of the season, but reach a crescendo, like the political ads during late October, that threaten to drive us out of our minds. By mid-December the cacophony of holiday messages is pushing me toward hibernation by reminding me that I have yet to finish my holiday shopping. And, also, reminding me of my impending date with the Pashtun Traders. For you see, every year, on the afternoon of December 25, my relatives morph into the Pashtun Traders of Leawood, Kansas.
Pashtun traders, for those who don’t know, are Afghani tribesman renowned for their cunning, resourcefulness and ability to haggle over the smallest point for days on end simply for the sheer joy of it. They are, by and large, illiterate, keeping track of complex transactions in their heads. They are fiercely loyal and devious fighters. The clan of my female in-laws is similar in nature—at least around Christmas.
My mother-in-law, my wife and her sister make Christmas gift giving so complicated and convoluted that it’s funny. They do it so fast it makes your head spin. They seem to speak in a different language. After 30 years I have been able to observe the ritual closely enough to have some idea of what they are doing.
Here is my take on what’s going on: They are basically buying presents on behalf of one another—gifts they know that the others want to give—when one finds something on sale or in the needed size, it is purchased and then given to the appropriate person. The purchased items are usually for the kids, but sometimes for other relatives. I am not privy to the hurried and hushed phone calls that precipitate the trading day. I can only imagine what they are like. “I found a bicycle for the Kelly doll at Target. It’s $4 less than it was at Marshall’s last week. I’m getting two.”
“Good. If you find a small in the blue jumper while you’re there, get that too.”
“I will. You should call mom and see if she found the horse for Nellie.” (Nellie is not a real person, but a doll. This fact does not deter the Pashtuns in the slightest from their mission.)
“Oooh, she’s beeping in now. Bye. (beep) Did you get the horse for Nellie?”
“Not yet. I am driving to Oklahoma. I heard a rumor that a small toy store had the Flying Panda set marked way below MSRP. I think I have a line on a Davie Dragon with real fire breathing action.”
“You sound unsure…”
“Well, you may have to get your car repainted to get the deal…”
No one else would have any idea what they are talking about. They are like toy savants, spouting arcane information about each toy’s location, price and manufacturing specifics. Some might be able to count a box of toothpicks as it falls to the ground, but my sister-in-law will know the inventory status and coupon code for every American Girl knock off in the Kansas City metro.
This isn’t their only talent that is worthy of television coverage. They all have an amazing acuity with baby trivia. Your co-worker’s cousin in Asheville, NC had a baby two years ago? If you ever mentioned that fact to these women, they would be able to recall the birth weight, birth date and name. They know the birthstone as well as hair and eye color. They can also give a subjective evaluation of the quality of the name and the manner in which it fits with the rest of your children’s names.
Alas, I seem to have digressed. All of this is really setting up the real fun on Christmas Day. Something this complicated is not without its potential pitfalls. It is possible that the giver may never actually see the present before it is opened on Christmas Day by the receiver. It’s like arbitrage—you buy and sell companies without ever laying a finger on them. This can lead to moments that should be awkward. “Oh, I like this. Who’s it from?”
“I think that’s from me. I’ll have to ask Michele.” That kind of answer is typical and there is never any embarrassment or awkwardness; this is completely normal here. It’s not the gift, but the thought that counts and with my in-laws it doesn’t even have to be your thought.
They keep track of all purchases in their heads and then settle up after Christmas dinner. This is the conversation that I enjoy listening in on. I can’t speak for my mother-in-law or sister-in-law, but my wife has never—not once in her adult life—balanced a checkbook. She claims mathematical retardation. Yet these three will be able to recite each other’s purchases over the last 60 days and settle up the differences to the penny—doing it all in their heads! Each will independently verify the correct figure instantly.
Like a clever “who dunnit”, it starts with the answer. Someone will state: “I owe Lauren $7.16 and mom owes me $11.38.” You have to let this sink in. It may not sound like much to you, but this is akin to Magellan circumnavigating the globe using only a sextant and an hourglass and finding his way right back to Genoa. The total expenditure will be over a thousand dollars. Nothing is ever written down and the final amounts will be almost exactly even.
The figure is verified in a roundabout way: “Does that include the extra shirts Lauren bought for Andy? It sounds low to me.” It isn’t low. The figure is never off. That is a sand bag comment akin to calling Justin Bieber kind of popular with teenage girls. Even if all the spending is even it seems to be imperative that there be a reckoning of the expenses. It’s as though Christmas didn’t happen if they don’t relive each purchase.
So, while the rest of the family is dozing in front of the football game or playing with a wonderful new toy, the matriarchs are writing checks to each other for eleven cents, enjoying a cup of coffee and scheming for next Christmas. Christmas traditions come in all shapes and sizes you see. If you tell my mother-in-law your size, she can shop for yours too.