My favorite part of Christmas when I was growing up was when my large extended Portuguese family would gather in Fairhaven with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and great aunts and great uncles. For many years, while she was still alive, my great Aunt Gloria was the star gift giver – because her gifts were so…so…well….horrible. Aunt Gloria’s gifts were so bad they were fantastic. When the time came to open gifts from Aunt Gloria it was like an annual holiday comedy special. Charlie Brown and the Grinch and Rudolph had nothing on Aunt Gloria’s gifts as a yearly event.
Gloria’s gifts got more ridiculous the further down the family tree your generation. Gloria’s contemporaries, my grandparents and their spouses, usually received “normal”-ish, if unspectacular, presents. My mom’s generation received sometimes silly, at times bordering on ridiculous presents, including a lot of “re-gifts.” Aunt Gloria once gave my Aunt Sylvia a set of sheets and pillowcases that my mother had given to Aunt Gloria the year before. My mom once received a calendar from Aunt Gloria’s bank. Once the presents were passed around to my generation, Gloria’s grand nieces and grand nephews (she had no children of her own), the serious competition for the most ridiculous present began in earnest. Over the years, annual winners of the Aunt Gloria Best/Worst Christmas present included:
- The jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly received by my brother. The jar was so old, the twist off cap resembled nothing currently in use by any producer of jams and jellies. The label was printed in a font no longer in use by Welch’s, and was yellow, not ivory or slightly faded, but yellow, jaundiced with age, My great Uncle Al speculated it was a pre-War (WW II) jar of jelly.
- The matching sets of gaudy, plastic jewelry gifted to my cousins, the sisters Jennifer, Jane, Audrey, and Kathryn. Each set included a necklace, bracelet, and earrings in a bold Crayola 8-box red, blue, yellow, and green. The necklaces were strings of huge Pythagorean perfect solids (cubes, triangles, octagons. and dodecahedrons) about an inch “square”. The bracelet consisted of a string of the same shapes, but about half the size. The earrings were a matching set of one of the shapes. Oh how my cousins flaunted and modeled the jewelry. We all howled!
- The hood my cousin John opened. This is unanimously consider the all time best (worst) Aunt Gloria Christmas gift by those of us still alive who remember them. Aunt Gloria gave my cousin John a hood. No jacket or hoodie or anything else attached – just a hood. It was green, had drawstrings to draw it close about your face, and buttons to attach it to a coat. Whether or not that coat ever existed we still don’t know. Whether or not Aunt Gloria made a gift of the matching coat or not we still don’t know. John being the good sport he was (and still is), put the hood on and praised it as a lovely hood. It wasn’t for no reason he got a little something left to him in the will when Gloria finally passed away. Don’t laugh, having survived more than one husband and having no children, Aunt Gloria’s dog was the chief beneficiary of her estate.
Aunt Gloria was “that” relative in my family – you know, the eccentric, odd, crazy one. No one was exactly sure if she was all there. Was she aware of how her gifts were perceived and received? Did she care? I still don’t know. And yet, each Christmas her gifts are re-gifted again and again. They provide me and my family not only memories, but hysterical stories that have become family lore. The sheets and the jam and the jewelry and the hood and all the others, although laughed at and “cheap” as they were, have become priceless, lasting treasures. And Aunt Gloria, who at the time we considered strange and clueless, and even insensitive in her unique generosity, has become a Christmas keepsake, brought out each year like the heirloom ornaments and pine cone crafts and wreaths of seashells made by my grandmother.
May you receive some gift this year that is as lasting and deep and full of memory many Christmases from now as those presents we opened from Great Aunt Gloria all those Christmases ago.
Merry Christmas, friends.