Somewhere in southeast Michigan, a family gathers each Christmas for a perverse ritual. Every year, a man’s sons, daughters, and many grandchildren arrive with carefully selected offerings, and they await judgement. One by one, the man receives the gifts, and he offers a quick, merciless assessment: thumbs up or thumbs down. No one leaves wondering what grandpa thought of his presents, for he has spoken.
Learning about this tradition (secondhand, from a friend) filled me with simultaneous horror and envy. For the anxious holiday gift-giver, there are endless guides this time of year that suggest gift options for every conceivable scenario. But what about the anxious gift-getter? It’s at least as hard to give a good gift as to receive a bad one. This is especially true when it comes to extended family, the crafty aunts and Groupon-addled brothers-in-law who refuse to give merely cash or a bottle of wine. Every December, convinced my benefactors can detect my forced smile when I open their gifts, I find myself flipping through an unwanted book or trying on XXL pajama pants for all to see. I’m a terminal overactor. See—I love it!
My friend’s wily progenitor had devised a brilliant antidote to the annual politesse: a swift reckoning by thumb. The family’s ritual may seem harsh, but is there any doubt the grandfather now receives better gifts? Besides, he turns an annual pile-up of junk into a game, and everyone wins, even when they lose. “It introduces a thrilling degree of competition, pageantry, and public shaming to an otherwise boring holiday,” as my friend put it. (If it seems especially hard on the children, she offered a somewhat disappointing qualifier: “Grandkids always get thumbs up,” she reported, “even the time I got him an indoor tomato plant hanger that completely boggled his mind. He clearly did not like that one, but I still got a thumbs up.”)
I’m aware it’s grinchy to complain about any gift—that I’m really meant to receive the “spirit in which the gift is given.” I would be happy with a nice dinner out with my family this time of year. But traditions are traditions, and our culture long ago overruled me. There will be gifts. And since my inventory of oversized pajamas is not getting any smaller, I see great wisdom in the old man’s gambit. As long as we’re giving gifts, shouldn’t we pursue the best ones possible? And who else to guide the givers than the getters?
I cannot, unfortunately, advocate the reckless deployment of thumbs on unsuspecting family members. I’ve adopted a more tactical, anticipatory approach. If you receive yearly gifts from your family members, you know the price range and shopping habits. Co-opt this information. About a month ahead of your family’s festivities, make it clear you do not have room for a plastic margarita machine in your 400-square-foot apartment this year. Instead, you should like some basic wooden cookware. You will actually be able to use this, you say. You will send photos of yourself using this, you say. Don’t worry, you’ll still pretend to be surprised, you say. No, of course you loved last year’s gift, you say … because you are weak.
This will work on most of your family members, and your mother won’t nearly get thrown out of the post office for shipping questionable liquids. You will be happy, and your genuine joy at your nice new spoons will show. If your family is the type to buy more ostentatious gifts, you will benefit in kind. In return, it is cosmically important to be proactive: What do your family members actually need this year? Recall dinner conversations. Ask someone who spends more time with them. If you can’t get an answer, buy wine or a gift certificate. Don’t be part of the problem.
If this guide reaches you too late this year and you face down the barrels of tube socks you will never wear, be brave. And then lie. “You know, I can’t wear socks like this to work! Terrible! Let me show you the kind I have to get.” “These are cute, but I really need a tie! I should have told you that earlier. Next year, I will.” Do not try on the socks. You have lain the groundwork for a better future.
Meanwhile, this year I may tell my in-laws the story of my friend’s devious patriarch and the competition he wills on his family each year. Isn’t it awful? And maybe a little funny? Maybe we should try it?