Bad, bad Santa

Story by Sarah Clower

Illustration by Cliff Thomas

My dad’s side of the family is large and dispersed all over the place, but we still try to get everyone together for the Clower family Christmas party. I’m not sure when the tradition started, but we reminisce, eat delicious food, fawn over any new babies born that year, retell the same hilarious tales and fond memories, and just enjoy each other’s company. We also play a game that we call Dirty Santa, and no one plays it quite like we do.

The Clower rules:

  • You must search out the most ridiculous item(s) you can find.
  • Used, vintage, broken/out-of-working order items are prized more than new, pristine items.
  • Embarrassing-to-open-in-front-of-others and mildly inappropriate gifts are encouraged.
  • Weird/gross food is permissible.
  • You must bring a gift for every family member that will be playing the game, but kids don’t play because of the extremely high likelihood that there will be inappropriate gifts exchanged.
  • If any gift that is inappropriate is seen by children, and the children inquire about said gift, it is mandatory that you call it a “dinglehopper” or a “doohickey” and invent a use for it.
  • Whoever goes home with the signed toilet seat or the old suitcase with the weird boots inside must bring it back as their gift for the game next year.

Until about two years ago, I was under the impression that my family had invented this game and were surely the only ones who played it. I learned differently when my friend Joy invited me to her family’s Christmas party and said to bring a gift for Dirty Santa.

“You know what Dirty Santa is? Your family plays it too?” I asked.

“Yeah, everybody knows what Dirty Santa is. And, yeah, we have forever,” she said looking at me strangely.

“Ok great! I will make sure I bring something hilarious! I can come up with some wild ones!” I exclaimed.

Joy stared at my face blankly.

“Uh, OK, but don’t bring alcohol or anything like that. My dad is a preacher, remember?” she said.

I immediately started brainstorming gift ideas. It might be hard to find a good yard sale, and I didn’t have enough time to spend a day perusing through flea markets, so I would have to come up with something from a regular store. Maybe I could find a really ugly nutcracker or some outrageous hot sauce. The Butt Blaster 3000 was a huge hit. Suddenly, an idea sprang to mind that was brilliant if I could pull it off on time.

The night of Joy’s holiday party I was giddy with excitement about my gift. I rode with her over to her parent’s house, and while she seemed oddly wary as to why I was so excited about my gift, she didn’t say anything.

I know her parents pretty well, having met them several times, and they were warm and welcoming hosts. Her family was quite different than mine. They were a subdued bunch while my family was raucous and so loud that the whole house thrums with a jovial chaos.

When it came time for the Dirty Santa game I was so excited! We drew numbers to see who would go first. I had number 16, which meant I went last.

Joy’s brother was number one. He picked a package and produced a $25 Amazon gift card from the mounds of tissue paper, and he seemed quite keen on keeping it.

“Well that’s very unimaginative,” I thought to myself.

The next person unwrapped a bucket with all sorts of really nice car-cleaning accessories and sprays. She swapped her gift for the gift card. The next person unwrapped a $25 Bass Pro gift card. She also swapped for the Amazon card.

It was then that I had a panicked suspicion — Joy’s family didn’t play the game quite like we did. When the next person unwrapped a pair of self-heating thermal gloves, I leaned over to Joy.

“Do y’all not play this with gag gifts?” I asked.

“No, just regular gifts. Just so we aren’t buying everyone a present. Our family is just too big for that. Why do you ask?”

I felt my face pale. I looked back at the gifts piled under the tree and didn’t immediately see mine, but I had to get it. I sat there thinking up reasons for why I had to retrieve my package and make a speedy exit. I started to excuse myself, planning on saying that the cocktail wienies just didn’t agree with me, and was about to make a run for it when Joy’s dad got up for his turn. After careful consideration he picked up my horribly wrapped gift.

“This one looks like a manly gift because of how it’s wrapped,” he joked.

I blushed.

When he opened the gift, he just stared at it for a moment. I sunk down in my chair. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temple that was suddenly throbbing. I couldn’t bear to watch.

He slowly pulled out the fanny pack that looked like a man’s gut complete with hair and a weird belly button.

“Well, this is different,” he said awkwardly. He stood up and put on the fanny pack. It indeed looked just like his paunch was sticking out from under his shirt.

“Oh, and there’s something in here,” he said, as he reached for the zipper.

My anxiety peaked and I blurted out “Don’t open that!”

Too late. Everyone looked at me because of my outburst then looked back at Mr. Hudson as he held the Oscar Mayer pickle and pimento loaf package in his hand.

“Well, I don’t believe I’ve ever had this,” he said politely.

“I am so sorry. That is my gift, and I didn’t realize that my family apparently plays this very differently. We try to find the most outrageous gifts, and I had no idea I was supposed to bring…well, not a hairy paunch fanny pack,” I confessed.

Joy’s dad looked at me briefly before bursting into laughter.

“Honestly, this is the best gift I have ever had in a Dirty Santa game, and I can’t wait to wear this to church on Sunday and see everyone’s reactions before they realize it’s a fanny pack,” he said with a mischievous grin. Everyone else was chuckling and laughing too, so I relaxed a little. Joy’s mom assured me she always wrapped extra gifts and insisted I keep playing. Since I was last I had my pick of all the gifts, and I chose the Amazon gift card.

By the end of the night, everyone had taken a turn wearing the fanny pack, and the pickle and pimento loaf had been unwrapped and tasted by all. I was still feeling mildly embarrassed when Joy walked over to me.

“See? It went over great. My dad will never take that thing off. But I want to come to your family’s Christmas party. It sounds like it would be way more fun than mine.”

“Sure! I’d love for you to come, but you know you can’t get away with an Amazon card.”

“Oh, I have just the thing. Remember when I thought I broke my tailbone and my doctor gave me that blow up pillow and that weird toilet seat and all the creams and stuff that goes with it? Well it turns out it was fine the next day, and I have it all still in the box in my closet.”

“Oh that would be brilliant! That’ll probably be the next gift that goes around for several years. Like the autographed toilet seat and the suitcase with the weird boots in it,” I said.

“Wait… what?” Joy asked.

I just smiled and nodded. “You’ll see.”