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During this season of giving, people everywhere are transformed. Generosity and compassion well up in us all. However, in the midst of all this merriment, otherwise charitable people can become so caught up in materialistic desires that they have thoughts of theft, revenge, and even murder.

What, pray tell, could arouse criminal tendencies during the holidays? The answer is simple: group gift exchanges.

Known as “Yankee Swaps,” “White Elephant exchanges,” or “Dirty Santas,” this apparently innocent holiday game rouses merciless thievery and selfish materialism in even the most virtuous of participants.

Case in point: my last military wives’ bunco group held an ornament exchange every December. The members carefully shopped beforehand, picking out items that were unique, handmade or artistic to contribute to the pool of gifts.

One year, the class clown in me couldn’t resist when I saw glass blown German ornaments delicately shaped into acorns and walnuts. I bought one of each, envisioning the hysterical laughter that would erupt when, as the recipient opened my package, I would blurt out a joke of questionable taste involving the word “nuts.”

We arrived at the hostess’ home at the designated hour and placed our tiny packages under her sparkling tree. Wine glasses filled, chitchat ensued, and we were all enjoying the festive atmosphere.

A while later, we were filling up on hot dip and red and green M&Ms, when the hostess called us into the living room to start the ornament exchange. Light laughter trailed into the room as we plopped onto couches and chairs.

We had no idea of the carnage about to befall our unsuspecting group.

After drawing numbers, the game began. The first two women picked from the wrapped gifts under the tree. One by one, they gently unraveled tissue paper from around their chosen ornaments. Eyes darted around the room and brains calculated. Just seconds before, we were more interested in cranberry cream cheese spread, but now that merchandise was involved, we began to strategize.

Not wanting to cause any drama, I also selected a wrapped ornament from under the tree when it was my turn. This might have continued, turn after turn, until all the packages were opened and accounted for, but someone suddenly cried “Steal!” and mouths began to water.

“Yeah, it’s no fun if we just pick the wrapped gifts, you’ve got to steal!” another added, wiping the spittle from her chin.

A chant ensued, “Steal! Steal! Steal!” as the next woman rose from her seat. A tiny grin could be seen on her face as she lunged toward her friend’s lap, containing an already-opened wooden ornament, seizing it away. We erupted in hoots and applause, and the living room transformed into a Roman Coliseum.

Seething with vengeance, the victim of the theft plotted her retribution.

The scene quickly turned from one of merriment to mayhem, as my fellow military spouses became an unruly mob. The women ruthlessly snatched ornaments one by one, while our host tried to maintain order. “Now, remember ladies, the gift is DEAD after it’s stolen three times.”

The mere mention of “death” only seemed to ignite more savagery.

When one woman stole the wooden ornament for the third time, the group shouted, “It’s DEAD, it’s DEAD!” and I thought I heard the gnashing of teeth as if she was carrying a bloody carcass back to the den.

With all the stolen ornaments dead, the last participant had no choice — she had to pick the lone gift left under the tree. It was the box of ornaments I had brought, and as she revealed them, I weakly offered my pre-planned inappropriate nut joke. The woman still wounded from battle, could only force a bogus chuckle.

As we all said goodnight, I realized that we had just waged an epic war over meaningless trinkets that could be bought for less than ten dollars at any local store. The shameless displays of latent aggression and irreparably hurt feelings could have all been easily avoided.

But perhaps humans who wouldn’t dream of committing theft and murder simply can’t resist the thrilling temptation of crime in the midst of delicious home-baked cookies and sparkling twinkle lights?

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Lisa Smith Molinari is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, blogger and speaker. “The Meat & Potatoes of Life” appears weekly in civilian and military newspapers across the United States.

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