Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanks, Giving (and the Martineau Gift Exchange)

Warning: This is a very long post, which was posted at the request of several non-Martineaus who wanted to know more about the annual “Gift Exchange.”

The original narrative was written on February 5, 2003. ..It was modified (slightly) on 11-28-08.

Thanks Giving [1]

a time for giving thanks
a time for life (worth living)
a time for giving thanks
the time is Now: Thanks-giving


Note: This post is NOT Spiritually Scripted, so you can expect "traditional" punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc.

* My family celebrates our major family re-union on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.

* We exchange gifts during a ceremony (lovingly known as “the Gift Exchange”), where each person presents a home-made gift to (one) other family member. ..Here are our (unofficial) ground rules:

1. We pick names (usually out of a hat) after the gift exchange. ..The name you draw is the person who you will make a gift for – during the following year. ..At present, there are 36 names.

2. If you draw someone who you’ve drawn recently, you can put her/his name back in the hat, and then you draw another name.

3. An (unwritten) rule is to keep the name of your recipient a secret, and only to “leak” the information to certain family members. ..Leaking” of information is a great way to find out “who’s got who.” ..If you tell someone who you’ve got, and if they don’t tell you who they’ve got, then it could possibly be you. ..For this reason, it is considered improper etiquette to “leak profusely.” ..A GREAT thing about the exchange is that you usually have to contact a family member’s spouse or significant-other to gather information about what they’d like to get. ..We’ve actually even made up a list of “favorites” for each family member, so that you’ll know your recipient’s favorite colors, animals, places, things, etc., for planning purposes.

4. If you haven’t drawn a specific person in years, and if you REALLY want to draw her/his name, then you talk to my sister (Donna). ..Donna arranges the drawing, and she keeps track of who’s got who. ..Donna will give you the name of the person who you want for next year, if you ask.

5. Invariably, family members will forget who they’ve drawn, and they’ll have to contact Donna for the answers. ..To date, there has NEVER been a mistake that has resulted in a family member being “left out” on exchange day. ..Donna does a wonderful job.

6. The way it works is, kids exchange with kids, and adults exchange with adults. ..When a “kid” feels ready to enter the “adult” ranks, s/he is informally inducted into “adult-dumb.”

7. Really young kids don’t “make” a gift, because their parents would invariably end-up making several gifts for others’ children. ..Instead, the parents of the young kids buy a small present for their children’s recipients. ..It’s a low-maintenance thing: Real young kids get toys/books, etc., so that they’ll have something to open and be happy about.

8. If the stress involved in “making” a gift is too high, or if a person feels that the creation process is too much to bear, then s/he can buy something… but s/he should try to personalize the gift somehow. ..An example would be: to buy a shirt, and then embroider the recipient’s name into the shirt.

9. There is an implied "cap" on spending ($25.00-ish), but an (unwritten) rule is to spend as little as possible. ..At times, an individual may brag about “not spending a dime.”

10. Another (unwritten), optional pastime is to wait... as long as humanly possible (e.g. procrastinate) before starting the project of making your gift. ..Some family members end up “putting the finishing touches on the gift” the day prior to –- or even the very day of –- the exchange. ..Of course, other family members pride themselves on finishing the gift long before the exchange date. ..This leads to excellent conversation throughout the year, in the form of “Have you started your gift yet?” and “Oh, no, I’m way behind,” or “Yeah, I’m done!..Note: the “Yeah, I’m done!” reply should not be rubbed in the face of the procrastinators. ..As you might expect, “face-rubbing” occurs on a frequent basis.

11. Back to procrastination: The great thing about procrastination is that you can complain (to anyone who will listen) about how stressful the gift exchange is, and how hard it is to make a gift (Blah, blah, blah)... ..Complaining” usually begins a few months before the exchange, and can continue right up a few hours before the actual event. ..Like a fine wine, whining is appreciated, but not in excess.

12. On the day of the exchange, we all gather a pre-determined location. ..The Gift Exchange involves a feast of food, but is known to be a “non-alcohol” family event. ..If a family member needs a drink (i.e. for medicinal purposes, because of the stress involved), that act of consumption is overlooked. ..The “partiers” (and they know who they are) are encouraged to “stay dry” throughout the event, so as not to spoil it with pig-headed arguments over religion and/or politics. ..Note: while “partiers” are strongly discouraged from using the “medicinal purposes consumption” option, a non-drinker may actually be admired for “smuggling.” ..Strange (of course), but true.

13. When the exchange begins, the crowd focuses on the receiver. ..The order of presentation is determined by the receiver’s age. ..We begin with the youngest, and end with the oldest, in order to honor the elders of the family last.

14. When it is your turn to receive, the crowd will usually yell out your name, kind of like the “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!” chants on the Springer show.

15. Another ritual of the gift exchange is the often loved, often hated: “hot seat.” ..The hot seat is the chair in which the gift recipient is expected to sit -- while ceremoniously receiving her/his gift from the gift’s maker. ..Over the years, the hot seat has taken on many forms. ..The goal of the hot seat is to honor the recipient, and to make her/him the center of attention.

The hot seat can be decorated (with just about anything), and can placed on a small “stage” or otherwise set apart from the viewing audience. ..The audacity of the hot seat decorum seems to be cyclical. ..On occasion, the hot seat is “cooled down.” ..The family will simply sit in a large circle, and the gift recipient may stay seated in her/his own chair. ..This cuts down on the recipient’s stress level, and ensures that s/he will not trip over children or gift-wrappings on the way to the hot seat.

16. In past Gift Exchange episodes, the “chicken” (which is actually some kind of hot-plate holder) has been worn on the gift-giver’s head (optional) during the presentation of the gift.

17. Once the receiver is prepared to receive her/his gift, it is the gift-giver’s chance to shine: the giver presents the gift in her/his own, unique way. ..S/he may strut toward the hot seat, s/he may “walk like a chicken,” or s/he may momentarily “forget” that s/he has made a gift for the receiver (which adds to the suspense). ..My personal ploy is to give a meaningless “gag” gift to my recipient, and watch them go through the horror of “hating the gift, but having to say something like: ‘I love it!’ or, worse yet: ‘It’s just what I always wanted!.’ ” .. …then I present them with the real gift.

18. While the receiver is opening her/his gift, the giver wallows in the joy of the offering, and hopes that the receiver will love it. ..How can s/he not?

19. There are several mini-ritualistic activities that can take place at any time during a gift opening:

a. foot-stomping by the audience.

b. random yelling of “Save the bow!” or “Save the ribbon!” by members of the audience.

c. random yelling of “Get the knife!” if the receiver is having trouble with the gift-wrapping (note: Some family members will go to extremes in the gift wrapping process. ..There always seems to be one who will put the tiny gift [wrapped several times] in the huge box). ..If you get a big box in a big box, you can bet that the actual gift is going to be small in size, yet (still) large in love.

d. random and group yelling of “ooooOOOooohh!!!” and “aaaAAAhhhhhh!!!!” during the unwrapping – as if watching a fireworks display.

e. the slow-opening of the gift (in other words… BE the receiver).

f. the attempted “help” of the young children during the unwrapping process.

g. the presentation of the opened gift to the crowd (for the gift-picture), and the subsequent “passing of the gift around” which usually happens after a random or group scream of “Pass it around!!!...if the gift consists of baked goods (cookies, pie, etc.) the "Pass it around" screams become slightly more insistent.

20. Once the ceremony is over, the family places all of the gifts on a table, for group viewing and pictures.

21. The post-gift exchange scenario is one of kids playing, random yelling, smiles, and renewed feasting. ...It is a time of great cheer. ...Sometimes, there will be group/family photo sessions, especially if “All of the family” is present.

22. Sadly, at some point, the party must begin to end. ..This usually starts with one couple or family stating that they (quote) “have to go” in a way that makes it seem as though they really don’t want to go.

The truth is, by that point, most of the family is worn out by all the feasting, hugging, yelling, and playing… and “We have to go” really means “We badly want to get the hell out of here!

23. You cannot leave, of course, without getting “ceremonial hugs” from the whole family… on an individual basis.

24. The process continues, and family after family dons their coats before saying their goodbyes. ..They carry their individual “booty” (gifts and such) to the car -- and quickly speed away from the scene.

25. The last remaining players finish the final cleaning of area, and then we retreat to my parents’ house for a review of how great the day was. ..This is also a time for family gossip, so anyone who does not want to be talked about should attempt to make it back to the house. ..The trick, after that, is to stay as long as you can.

* I love the gift exchange. ..It is my favorite day of the year. ..It makes me feel united with my family. ..It Is family.

* The “Thanksgiving” timeframe brings out the idea of giving thanks, and helps to bring in the Christmas holiday season.

* Giving + Thanks = Thanksgiving.

[1] martineau, l. (2-5-2003). book 16: baklavahhh. modified 11-28-2008. copyright 2008 by


  1. Wow - you described it so clearly - I felt like I was there!

  2. Hi, Jean!

    You've got to plan on a Thanksgiving-Saturday here, one of these years :)


  3. What a beautiful tradition! Welcome home.

  4. Hi, Donna!

    Thanks for the welcome back!