Christmas Eve Gift!

The author reviewing a book on Christmas morning, with her sister in the foreground.
The author reviewing a book on Christmas morning, with her sister in the foreground.

Does your family play the Christmas Eve gift game? You may be surprised at how many families do!

Do you remember the first time you realized your family was not quite… uh, “normal”?

I do. 

It was December 24. After years of being bested by my brother (I think I was seven or eight years old), I turned my eye toward easier prey. I had been the low man on the totem pole for too long. I would find a victim of my own. I decided to pay my next-door-neighbor and best friend, Janet, a visit. I sauntered over to her house, and when she answered the door I struck like a bolt of lightning. I was too sneaky, too fast – and I GOT her! With smugness in my voice I shouted, “CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT!!”

Her reply was underwhelming. It was something along the line of, “Huhwha??”

Sure that she was just being dense about things, I stubbornly repeated, “CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT! I got you!” She looked at me with confusion. “What are you TALKING about?” Then she turned and walked away, as if nothing of consequence had just happened.

I was stunned. I had just pulled off a major coupe, and my victim didn’t even appreciate the fact. Then the realization hit me… she didn’t KNOW about Christmas Eve Gift! It felt just like the moment that I first realized the rest of the world didn’t refer to Worcestershire Sauce as “wigi-wigi,”and that they would laugh at you and make fun of you if you did. I felt betrayed by my family, sent off into the world ill-informed – and even worse – loaded with “familyisms” that would only serve to make me a laughingstock with my friends.

Christmas Eve Gift is one of those peculiar family customs shared in my BUCE branch of the family. It is best described as a game of verbal tag. (Or, depending on the enthusiasm of the participants, verbal warfare.) The only catch is that once you’ve been “gotten” you are out of the game with that person for the year, and you have to wait an excruciatingly long 365 days to catch them again.

The rules of Christmas Eve Gift are simple:

• It can only be played on Christmas Eve (which, by the way, begins at the first nanosecond past 12:00 a.m. for those who set their alarms).
• You must say the words “Christmas Eve Gift” to them before they say it to you.
• Any form of deceit or subterfuge is allowed, provided it assures you success.
• Whoever “gets” someone first is the winner. Whoever “gets got” is not only a miserable loser, they are a miserable loser for an ENTIRE YEAR without a chance for redemption until Christmas Eve of the next year.

The jury is still out regarding the use of modern technology. Answering machines and email are questionable methods to convey the proper Christmas Eve Gift message. And caller ID on cell phones has added additional challenges. Not that we don’t try, mind you. Oh, yes, we text and leave voice mail messages just after midnight. However, the message recipient just refuses to acknowledge the message left on these devices as “real.” It seems that we lean toward the message having to be uttered by a live human being in the present moment of time.

We have the most trouble when we have to indoctrinate new family members – usually new spouses who marry into the family. Sometimes it takes 20 years or more to get them into the spirit of the game, and usually they never quite develop the competitive edge you get from the birth family.

My brother was always notorious for setting his alarm clock for 12:01 a.m. on Christmas Eve day. He would then proceed to tiptoe through the house, waking his unsuspecting victims, and hissing “Christmas Eve Gift!” Not only does a person have to be awake for you to count coupe on them, it adds to the savory thrill. Part of the satisfaction is in hearing them moan, “Noooo!!! No fair!” (And to follow that up with the subsequent, “I got you! I got you!!”) It does not pay to shout in the dead of night, not until you’ve gotten the last victim sleeping in the house. It can backfire far too easily. If someone hears you Christmas Eve Gifting someone else, they will lay awake in their bed and the moment you slowly begin opening that bedroom door in the dark, they’ll lash out at you and get you instead. Suddenly the “gifter” will become the “giftee.”

It was always a special thrill to ‘Christmas Eve Gift’ an entire room full of people at once. Driving to my grandmother’s house in Mosier on Christmas Eve for family holiday dinners, we would plot our entrance. “Dad! Park down by the grange hall and we’ll sneak in on foot and yell ‘Christmas Eve Gift’! They’ll never know we are coming!” we would urge my father. Being a Buce, he understood and would comply. Little did we know at the time that my evil cousins Steve and Scott had been upstairs in my grandmother’s house watching the freeway from the front bedroom window. Just this past year my cousin Scott revealed this to me, explaining from that vantage point they could see our car take the Mosier exit. (And since Mosier is such a small town, there wasn’t much activity on that exit ramp.) I always wondered why we never seemed to be able to surprise them.

As adults we have all taken the low road. On Christmas Eve day, every one of us answers the phone “Christmas Eve Gift!” Of course, for those of us who have to work on that day, this can lead to some embarrassment on the job. I think we’ve all had an opportunity to explain to some poor unsuspecting customer or coworker, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a family member…. no… it’s just a family thing we do.”

One year my brother was driving home for Christmas from Seattle, which is to the north, and my sister was driving home from Eugene, which is to the south. Amazingly enough, they encountered each other in the Columbia River Gorge driving up I-84 toward The Dalles. My sister, thinking she would be clever – and seeing an opportunity to get our devious older brother – rolled down her car window as she was passing him. He, thinking she was trying to tell him something, rolled down his window. “Christmas Eve Gift” she shouted. He looked at his watch. “It’s only 11:50pm,” he replied. It’s not Christmas Eve yet. It doesn’t count.” My sister glared at him, then at her watch. She rolled her window back up, grumbling. Technically, he was correct. It didn’t count. They continued on their way, and my sister got distracted, thinking other thoughts as she drove. Pretty soon my brother pulled up alongside of her again. He rolled down his window. She rolled down hers. “Christmas Eve Gift!” he shouted, much to her dismay. “It’s after midnight! NOW it counts!!” He still considers that one of his better coupe.

Once I was reading the book The Yearling when I ran across a page that referred to the Christmas Eve Gift game. Suddenly, I was vindicated! There were other people in the world who played! I ran to my mom, and yelled in excitement, “Mom! Look! They do it here in this book! We’re not the only ones who play Christmas Eve Gift!”

Where did this bizarre little family custom come from? For years I figured it originated with folks from Oklahoma. I had no clue how this game started, who plays it, or why. I only knew that the only people I’ve ever found who have heard of this game have some connections with Oklahoma. Now, I’ve never been to Oklahoma but my dad was born there, as was his father. (In the 1800’s my great-grandfather and his family walked to Oklahoma from their homestate of North Carolina.) But now I know that many, MANY families practice the custom. Most have roots in the southern USA states.

My aunt got lucky; she married a man from Oklahoma, and they already had this custom in their family. Not only did she not have to explain the game to him, he taught my cousins, Steve and Scott, to be topnotch at the game. Next to my brother, they were always the hardest ones to beat. One year around Christmas time we noticed a small article on the front page of The Oregonian about a family from Oklahoma who were living in John Day. It made mention of their family custom of saying, “Christmas Eve Gift,” to each other. My aunt Bobbie was excited. She actually picked the phone up to call them, asking them about their custom. Seems they say it as a mere greeting, rather than the verbal cat-and-mouse game it is. She shook her head sadly when she got off the phone. Clearly the Oklahoma blood had thinned a little too much.

After my article, “Dealing with a Peculiar Family Tradition,” about the Christmas Eve Gift game tradition was published in ROOTSWEB, Vol. 5, No. 51, 18 December 2002, I received a flood of emails from around the USA. It seems I had touched a chord with many others who practice this annual tradition in their families. The first morning I received 45 emails by noon, and by evening of the first day I had 72. Additional messages trickled in for days, and I’ve now received over 140 responses.

I’ve heard from many people that the custom has a connection with slavery days, the theory being that the slaves would shout out the greeting “Christmas Gift” and receive a coin or small gift. It seems to be a custom that was broadly practiced by families from the southern parts of the USA. I’ve learned about many variations on the theme, including a woman who’s family gobbles like a turkey as a greeting on Thanksgiving.

I’m delighted by the notes I received from other people whose families also practice this custom. Most of them, like me, thought it was something weird that only their family did. Now we know that we are not alone in the world! I hope you enjoy reading this article and by the way, “CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT!”

-Susan Buce

Who celebrates the Oregon Trail?

The Oregon Trail was not just a road; it was a decades-long event that brought an influx of pioneers into what became known as “Oregon Territory.”

Beginning in 1840 with the small group of raggedy mountain men who accompanied Joe Meek and Robert “Doc” Newell, the first wagon crossed the mountains and reached Oregon Territory. Well, the first wagon wheels… they had to throw the bed of the wagon aside as they fought their way through sagebrush, over mountain passes, through forests and high desert plains.

Meek and Newell were not the first to arrive at the fine lands of Oregon. The missionaries had preceded them in the 1830s, and the fur traders had set up posts in the region since 1811.

But who preceded them? 

Little homage is paid to the people who were already living here, and had been for well over 10,000 years. The Indigenous folks, the River People, the collective tribes and bands of native peoples of Ni’ chi-wana, the Big River, had their homes here already.

They saw the stream of explorers and pioneers first as a curiosity, then a source of trade, but eventually recognized in horror what was really happening. It was an invasion. By the time they recognized that fact, the damage was well underway, as their people were decimated by disease and the flood of people setting up towns on the lands they once roamed freely.

The year 2018 marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, commemorating it from the year 1843 which saw the first big emigration.

But as we celebrate the stalwart spirit of those pioneers who braved hardship to carve a new life for themselves and their families, let’s also commemorate the regional Indigenous people whose ancestors did the same thing over 10,000 years ago, and who have been and are survivors in the face of multiple adversities – not the least of which is the settlement of this noble territory by Euro-Americans and their descendants.


Total Solar Eclipse

We have the opportunity to recognize in the moment that we are living in historic times. If you think about it, not every day brings that gift.

One of the special things that lands us in the midst of historic times is the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse that is taking place across the USA on August 21. In Oregon we are primed to be in the path of the totality.

Travel to the John Day Fossil Bed area if you want a spectacular view. No one can predict ahead of time what the weather will be like, but chances are far higher in eastern Oregon for cloudless skies than on the Oregon Coast.

Want to camp out? Camp sites are not yet all gone. Click here to see the available self-contained camping right in the center of the John Day Fossil Bed.

Spring is sprung

Spring is sprung, and with it the biting cold days of winter 2016-17 turn into memories. Was it an historic winter? Some say so, due to the number of days snow covered the landscape, beginning early last December. (You’ll still find snow on a few of the deep recesses in the the north-facing slopes of Highway 30.)

Heavy snowfall is followed, eventually, by snow melt. The Columbia River drains the north-western half of the continent, and all of those mountain passes are feeding streams which feed into the Columbia. Floods in this part of the river have always been a part of our town’s history, and historically they come with spring and early summer weather when the snow pack in the mountains turns into more water than one river can hold.

Viva la revolucion

Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
The Battle of Waterloo by artist William Sadler

Viva la revolución!

In various languages and cultures, that has been the battle cry over the ages.

Revolutions don’t take place when the populace is well fed, well cared-for, and content. They take place when people feel disenfranchised, shut-out, discontent.

The political season of 2016 may well go down in history books, but lest you think it was unique, review your history tomes.

In the beginning, the central point of American Revolution wasn’t about freedom. Sorry. The British government levied large taxes on the American colonies to help pay for the war debt from the French and Indian wars. The colonists resisted paying the new taxes, via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act. These acts of “taxation without representation” brought discontent, and the desire to break the shackles of British taxation gave rise to an overthrow of the ruling government.

The Napoleonic wars were caused by a continuation of the French Revolution, the bankruptcy of France as a nation under the monarchy, and the overthrow of the French aristocracy and royal family.

The War of 1812 was a series of economic sanctions taken by the British and French against the US as part of the Napoleonic Wars and American outrage at the British practice of forced recruitment.

The Civil War – if you think the political season of 2016 was horrific, imagine what it was like to go through the lead-up to the Civil War. Political ideals split families like a meat cleaver. The core issue leading up to the Civil War was, again, economics. Would the South be free to pick up their marbles and retreat to their own turf, and operate financially (with big, financially booming cotton plantations) as an independent country? Or would they be overruled, and forced into compliance.

If you look at virtually every war, the central issue revolves around money, and power. The moral and emotional issues become rallying cries to recruit loyalty from the masses. But make no mistake – nations go to battle in a quest for money. And power.

Revolution takes place when the status quo becomes complacent, and willfully ignorant, of the comfort of the masses. It would be lovely to imagine that world leaders would wake up one morning and think, “I believe I shall make a positive change in the world to benefit all people.”

If you depend on world leaders to think along those lines, you may be disappointed.

We can’t control what world leaders – or any other people – think or do. But we can control what WE think and do. Start a revolution in your own life. Make your time count. Identify a positive change and jump into action.

Viva la revolución!