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The Art of Gift-Giving

Valuable lessons from Bay Weekly ­Christmases past
Bill Burton and Lisa Knoll would regularly steal the best gifts of the Bay Weekly Christmas party from one another. Don Kehne, (below) on the other hand, would invariably get stuck with the worst gift of all — one which no one would dream of stealing from him.
     Everything I know about gift-giving I learned at Bay Weekly’s many holiday parties over 27 years. From hand-to-mouth subsistence years, we grew flush enough to rent a hall to thank the growing numbers of people — always an encouraging mix of old and new — who made and delivered our earnest young paper. 
      Beyond delicious food and lubricating drink — catered over the years by Anna Chaney at Herrington on the Bay and the Irish Restaurant Company at Pirates Cove — something more was needed to break the pattern of people settling in at tables with ­people they already knew.
     The solution came to us from Sonia Linebaugh, a stalwart from our earliest days. Sonia’s big Pennsylviania family used a Dutch Trader system to make gift-giving affordable and reunite the family in competitive hilarity. 
     Here’s how Chesapeake Trader, as we called our adaptation, worked. Each guest, Bay Weekly contributors and their significant other, was to bring a wrapped gift so desirable that every person at the party would covet it. No more than $20 could be spent on what each giver hoped (we supposed) would be the party’s best gift.
   Entering guests deposited their gift and drew from Santa’s hat a numbered poker chip that determined their gift-choosing order.
     The gift table piled high with who knew what, some of it in strange size, shape and wrapping. What could be in those lumpy black garbage bags, for example? Would anyone willingly choose one to see?
      When all were fully fed and warmed up, Chesapeake Trader’s rules were read and gift-choosing got underway. No. 1 chose from the table. Everybody else had the right to choose from the table or steal an already chosen gift. You couldn’t steal the same gift more than once, though in Chesapeake Trader’s heyday, thieving might go on for several rounds.
     Kids up to teens were exempt, and they were given gifts that were theirs for keeps, lest a babe be traumatized by theft. They could, however, advise their parents and families, and alliances often conspired to gain possession of a really desirable gift.
     No brawls broke out — though feelings were occasionally pricked — and a lot of ice was broken. In those rousing exchanges, I learned my lessons in the dynamics of giving and receiving. 
     Lesson 1: A gift is always more desirable if somebody else wants it. Ordinary gifts like a nice pottery bowl (thank you Erin Huebschman; I still have it) or a set of wooden pencils could spark a competition that heated up a few collars. A really desirable gift — like the contents of those black plastic bags, fresh mantle swags handmade by Dr. Frank Gouin, the Bay Gardener — could lead to Machiavellian maneuvering among shifting alliances.
      Lesson 2: You can’t tell a gift by its wrapping — though attractive wrapping can work like a good bait in attracting bites.
     Husband Bill Lambrecht, a man with a quirky sense of humor, set the example for this lesson. He’d done his Christmas shopping locally, at Dale Thomas’ Nice and Fleazy antique shop in North Beach. There Dale, a man who knows how to make a sale, had convinced Bill (who didn’t take much convincing) that a fox stole — the old-fashioned kind where the taxidermied head makes a circle by gripping the tail in its teeth — would add just the proper levity to the party. Bill wrapped his fox in a Nordstrom box complete with the store bow.
      It was chosen, midway through the gift-giving, by vegan healer and writer Paula Phillips, who shrieked with horror. She was saved from having to keep the fox by one of our graphic designers Clara Hall’s daughters, who adored it.
     Lesson 3: The most unlikely gifts may be the belle of the ball. I would not have been happy with either a singing Christmas tree or a talking mounted rubbber fish. Legendary outdoors writer Bill Burton, a man who knew how to enjoy a party, and his equally party-loving wife Lois coveted both of them. So did a good quarter of the guests, including my daughter-in-law Lisa Knoll, then our director of sales and marketing, who seemed an unlikely match for such holiday decor. Hot conniving trading ensued.
     Lesson 4: Not every novelty has the same appeal. I’ve proved this lesson true many times in gifts I thought sure to please. Fish-printed house slippers? Not so popular. A blue whale made from a giant dried squash? A flop — even though I thought it a work of agrarian folk art with definite maritime appeal. 
     Lesson 5: Some gifts are sure to fail. Nobody ever wants a coffee mug. No matter how clever the saying on it, it always ranks as the lowest common denominator gift. Did you happen to bring it from work? We could tell.
     Worse still are workplace computer trappings like mouse pads and simpleton software. I still see partygoers’ bemused grimaces over such gifits. Our long-enduring Betsy Kehne’s brother Don — gifted as a writer with weird genius — famously chose the worst gift in the pile year after year. 
      P.S. Strange food items also fit in that category. A forsaken jar of lemon curd holds permanent place in our office pantry. So do gender-role gifts. That ladies’ necklace did not suit Pat Piper, another of our writers who marched to his own drummer.
       Lesson 6: Recipents of bad gifts will feel bad. Even if your own contribution to the gift pile was thoughtless — a cellophane-wrapped package of store-bought cookies or exercise software, for example — you’ll grieve at choosing a bad gift, feeling its miserableness a subtraction from your self worth. You’ll grieve doubly because it’s theft-proof. If you want no more things in your life, you’ll feel epecially bad at having to carry off a thing no one would want. Except, for the cookies, the dog.
      Lesson 7: It’s impossible to learn from Lesson 6 because, just as you can never be sure what another person is thinking, you can never be sure what gift will succeed and what will fail. Even a righteous gift may fall into the wrong hands. Like that New Year’s Eve Party in a Bag spouse Lambrecht and I concocted a couple of years ago, traveling to a half dozen stores to get every last element — paper party horns were the hangup — to go with champagne and fancy glasses. Wouldn’t you have been thrilled? Maybe so, maybe not. There’s no accounting for taste.
      Lesson 8: In case the gift you give or get ­doesn’t hit the spot, I advise you to throw a party around the gift-giving. A good party is a gift that never fails.