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