Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Disappointing Gifts.

It all started in Frau Sundeen's sixth-period German class. As a former member of International Club, I can picture it clearly: map of Deutschland on the wall, “Velkommen!” sign above the door, and the good Frau herself, with her blonde coiffure and Christmas cardigan. It was mid-December 1994, and the class was having a little Weinachtsfest to celebrate the last day of school before winter break. At the party, over some homemade strudel, they learned about Knecht Ruprecht--an evil elf that fills the shoes of naughty German children with horrible presents. 

I wasn't in that class at East Grand Forks Senior High; I was in far away Moorhead, studying plagal cadences and suspended seventh chords. My brother Andy, however, was in that class. 

The gears in his brain began to turn. 

A plan formed...a diabolical plan, a plan that would pay off beyond his wildest dreams--in fact beyond the wildest dreams of younger brothers everywhere; younger brothers that yearn for new ways to torment their older sisters like a wino yearns for a fresh bottle of red.

Fast forward to Christmas morning. 

Home from my freshman year of college, I was having trouble sleeping in the relative silence of the house. I woke up around five a.m., and unable to relax, decided to check the Christmas tree for presents. I couldn't find my glasses, so I tiptoed downstairs without them. I am legally blind without glasses or contacts. This is important.

I could hear my mother snoring from the couch in the living room, so I approached the tree with the stealth of a ninja. Merry strings of colored lights dimly illuminated the scene. I crouched in front of the fragrant pine...every gift was wrapped in cheerful paper; snowmen and Santas winked back at me in the muted light. I spied a present that didn't match the others. It wasn't wrapped, and the box was darker in color. I picked it up.

“JILL--OPEN ME!” it read. 

So, I opened it.

When my mother tells this story, she describes waking up to the tree branches shaking, ornaments clinking and rattling, and my tremulous voice from somewhere in the darkness calling, “Mo-o-0-0-OM??” I then came lurching out from behind the tree, half walking, half crawling, tripping over my robe and nearly face-planting into the carpet. I was so panicked I was almost hyperventilating. “Mo-o-om!”

She sat up and flipped on the light, took one inside the box I held clutched in my hand, and burst out laughing. 

“What's so funny?” I demanded breathlessly, almost in tears. “I think someone went CRAZY!” 

She shook her head, tears of laughter coming down--a reaction that my addled brain failed to comprehend. “I wondered what your brother was doing with all those Halloween props!” 

The horrible box? Was FULL of very lifelike severed fingers and Heinz ketchup. When I say lifelike, I mean LIFE. LIKE. I don't remember one single solitary real present I received that year, but I can picture the contents of that nightmarish box like it happened yesterday. OH, TENENBAUM OF UNHOLY TERROR! I was traumatized for days afterwards.

I knew there was a reason I took Spanish.

Over the next few years I let several opportunities for retaliation slip past. I had one semi-brilliant, if time-consuming idea—to mix up the CDs, cases, and booklets of my brother's entire precious music collection—but Andy somehow sensed what I was up to and kept his bedroom door locked when he was not inside. “Rats! Foiled again!” I hissed when it came time to go back to school.

The first Christmas after the great Red River Flood of 1997, donations from all over the country were still pouring into Grand Forks/East Grand Forks faster than they could be distributed. Our church delivered a box of lovely items to our doorstep—mostly quilts and non-perishable food items, with one exception: a mangy, well-past-their-prime bag of whole carrots. I had friends and family that lost nearly everything to that flood and were still living in FEMA trailers months later, and I still can't fathom any of them were hard up enough to consume brown, musty, mummified carrots. It's the thought that counts, right? 

My mom was about to toss them in the trash when I stopped her. “Knecht Ruprecht,” I whispered. Then, “Revenge.

I found a large box and stuffed it extravagantly with festive tissue paper and confetti, burying the carrots deep inside. I wrapped the gift in glossy paper, taking care that the taped edges were as smooth and flawless as a department store display. I tied bolts of colorful zip-ribbon around the package, curling the ends into fistfuls of luxurious spirals. Lastly, I chose the biggest and brightest gift tag I could find, and in buoyant script wrote, “Andy! OPEN ME!”

Cackling with glee, I placed the box beneath the tree, and waited for showtime. 

When he saw it, and saw it was for him, his eyes lit up. He seized the package and shook it, listening carefully. “Ooooh. What IS it?” he wondered aloud.

I remained aloof and silent. Catlike, in my stealthy plotting ways.

“I bet it's something good!” he exclaimed, rattling the box again.

I had to bite my fist to keep from chuckling out loud.

“What was that?” he asked, whipping his head around to look at me.

“Nothing,” I said innocently. “Just, uh, thought I might sneeze.”

He turned back to his present, holding it up to the light for examination.

When it came time to open gifts, Andy saved the best for last. The entire family watched as he tore into my present. Shreds of paper and shimmering tinsel flew everywhere. He flung the lid aside with gusto, and dove into the tangles of stuffing, pawing through it with one, then both hands. Near the bottom of the box, he paused. His expression changed from elated, to puzzled, to alarmed. He lifted the cellophane bag containing the decrepit root vegetables high, squinted at what he held for a disbelieving moment, and said: “Carrots.”

A moment of stunned silence followed.

Then he started to laugh. And the rest of us joined in. Before long we were howling, knee slapping, and rolling on the floor, and it felt great. The carrots are the only gift I remember giving or getting that Christmas, which was otherwise not exactly the best one of any of our lives. Baby Jesus might have warranted gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; for my money, those carrots were a Nelson family Christmas miracle, bringing us all together in a shared moment of (admittedly perverse) joy.

This launched my family's semi-annual Disappointing Gifts tradition. I highly suggest you try this—though maybe not if your brethren are easily offended. It is often the best laugh we have all year. There is a five dollar limit, and the goal isn't just to find something bad or worthless; it has to be disappointing, which takes a certain amount of finesse.

For instance: poster of a person skiing--lame. Large, ugly poster of a person skiing off a cliff, with an enormous caption reading, “OH SHIT”--disappointing. (To my mother. I would think it was awesome, obviously.)

Dollar store makeup set--lame. Expired Wet N' Wild Makeup Set with greyish pearl nail polish (separated), red lipstick (waxy), and blaze orange lip pencil (broken) with the “HALF OFF” tag still attached? Disappointing.

Here's where things can backfire: the ULTIMATE disappointment is when a carefully chosen disappointing gift is mistaken for a real gift by its recipient. My brother once sent Jeremy a cheap hand soap dispenser in the shape of a piece of pie. I totally see what Andy was going for--I mean, who would want that?—but to his chagrin, Jeremy thought it was the coolest thing ever. “How did he KNOW I love pumpkin pie? Did you TELL him?” Jeremy crowed, as he proudly set his present next to the kitchen sink, then stepped back to admire it. My brother was crushed. It was amazing! Not “carrots” amazing, but pretty damn good.

In conclusion, as the Halloween decorations go on clearance and the Christmas tumor metastasizes in your favorite store, don't walk past those seasonal leftovers. If your family is anywhere near as delightfully twisted as mine, you may just discover the spirit of Christmas next to the discount cobwebs on aisle nine.


  1. I forgot all about that soap pump! I told Andy it wasn't that bad. I'm still pretty pleased with the ugly fish that just wouldn't die.

  2. Bradley, you are the Jedi Master of disappointing gifts. For the benefit of anyone reading this, Bradley made my mom close her eyes, and placed her disappointing gift in her hands: a hideous bottom-feeding fish in a plastic fishbowl. It was grey, it had FEELERS, and he knew she would not be able to get rid of it. She named it Bradley.

    After that we outlawed living things as disappointing gifts.

  3. ...the best part about the hideous fish is that it lived for over a year. Even after a suicide attempt - leaping out of the fishbowl onto a blazing stovetop burner - it survived. It was the gift that kept on giving and giving and giving.

  4. The fish leaped out of a cup of water it was in as our mother cleaned its bowl because we were coming to visit. When we got to her place, it totally smelled like fish.
    The fish lived for at least a year after that. I'm pretty sure she had it for a couple of years total.