This time of year as sleigh bells ring and elves work overtime, I think of the worst Christmas gift I ever received.
It was a plastic bobble-head figurine of a British barrister. It was meant to be charming in a bewigged, big-bellied Rumpole sort of way. But with its bulbous, bobbing head and bloated features it was simply hideous.
“Isn’t he cute,” said my mother, who had perpetrated this crime. “He can go in your office.”
“Wow,” I said, holding the atrocity like a soiled diaper, knowing full well it would never come near my cozy little third-floor confines on Broad Street.
My father could only look on sympathetically. He had given me the same gift he gave every year – socks and a flashlight – wonderful, useful items that never go out of style. My mother, on the other hand, was famous for giving presents that nobody wanted or would ever use. This year she had outdone herself.
Salvation at the White Elephant Gift Swap
Back home in Charleston I received an invitation that promised salvation. The building where I worked was having a Christmas gift exchange, where awful presents could be pawned off on unlucky suitemates, and I had the perfect item. So I wrapped my bobble-head barrister and headed for the party.
Once the exchanging began, though, I knew I was in trouble. The first gift was a handsome little globe that was also a pencil sharpener – something I would proudly put on my desk – and the next was a box of chocolate-covered cherries. Yet both were rejected and passed on to the next person. What chance did my ghastly figurine have of being claimed?
Sure enough, it went all the way around the circle and back to me, and I returned home with the thing still in my possession. I threw it in a carton of Christmas decorations and tried to forget about it.
A Barrister Becomes a Rugrat
Which I managed to do until years later, when my third child – the delightfully spirited Mary Ann – was born. By delightfully spirited I mean she threw her food on the floor and cried all the time.
That Christmas, the whole family dreaded going to South Carolina to visit my parents because it meant being trapped in the minivan while Mary Ann screamed for four hours in her car seat.
The night before our departure, her older brother Bo was amusing her by letting her go through a box of dangerous glass ornaments, toxic fake tinsel and strings of electric lights. From the other room I heard Mary Ann shriek with joy. She had pulled out the long-forgotten bobble-head barrister.
“Rugrat, rugrat,” she cried.
It was chipped and faded and its spring had become unsprung so that the head slumped sadly to one side. But Mary Ann loved it.
“She thinks it’s a Rugrat,” said Bo.
She slept with Rugrat that night and rode peacefully with it the next day, all the way down to Kingstree without so much as a peep. When she got to grandma’s house she displayed her new toy proudly.
“Oh look his neck is broken,” said my mother. “We’ll have to doctor him up.”
And with Mary Ann sitting contentedly in her lap, she repaired the barrister turned rugrat with the sort of care that only a grandmother can give.
Joyful and Triumphant
I’ve already got my Christmas tree up. I’ve blocked the week out for no appointments, telephone calls or work of any kind. Mary Ann will be flying down from Brooklyn, and her three siblings are coming too.
We’ll shoot fireworks. I’ll make a pecan pie and they’ll pretend it’s delicious. We’ll watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and shout Merry Christmas when cousin Eddie makes the sewer explode.
When guests come over they might ask about the battered bobble-head figurine on the mantle between the Nutcracker and the Santa snow globe. My children and I will look at each other and smile.
“That’s the Christmas Rugrat,” we’ll say, which will leave the guest totally confused.
This is as it should be, for there are some parts of Christmas only a family can understand.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.