Thinking Out Loud

December 13, 2016

The Christmas Gift Exchange Game

christmas-gifts-tiled

You know this game.

Everyone brings a wrapped gift and places it under the Christmas tree. Everyone gets a number. The first person picks a gift from the tree and unwraps it for all to see. The second person has a choice, they can pick a gift as well, or steal the item the first person has. The person who just lost their gift now picks another gift from the tree. The third person can steal something, from the first or second person, who then can steal something or pick a gift from the tree.

And on it goes.

My wife is not a particular fan of this game. The game is a trigger. Of what, I do not comprehend. Myself, I like Christmas parties to contain two elements, food and conversation. When someone says, “Now we’re going to play a game;” I take off to the spare bedroom for a prolonged conversation with the family cat.

But last night, at the staff party we hosted, of our own volition, we played the game.

But with some differences.

First of all, everybody got four numbers. There were eight of us, so 36 gifts in total.

Second, we (my wife and I) bought all the gifts ourselves.

Third, you couldn’t really tell what anything was by the way it was wrapped.

Fourth, it just so happened that every single gift had exactly the same monetary value.

In case you’re wondering how we did this, the gifts were from Dollar Tree. Each item had a retail value of $1.25 CAD, and everybody knew this.

…and yet…

First, there was just as much emotion over the acquisition of and the loss of various objects as there are in the traditional version of the game where more value is at stake. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Second, the game still played to our sense of personal property. One particular item that someone had held onto for most of the game was stolen at the last minute. It takes only minutes for something to be ours. There’s a lesson there, too.

Third, all the items were practical and usable by the average participant. There wasn’t anyone going home with something that couldn’t be used at some point over the next few months. Normally, when you say giftware, you’re including so many things that no one specifically needs.

Fourth, everyone’s take consisted of more than one item. Their loot wasn’t entirely consisting of one single item which they may have chosen, or simply ended up with by the luck of the draw.

Fifth, there was complete equity in terms of the dollar value of the gifts. No one can seriously complain that anyone got more. (And anyone who feels they missed out on something can go to Dollar Tree and simply buy the thing for pocket change.)

I think we had just as much fun as when we’ve played the game with $25 items. Maybe more. No, definitely more.

One thing I learned doing this was that Dollar Tree carries great merchandise. Several people were surprised that we had obtained the items at such a low price.

One thing I regret is that we didn’t do all this buying for a low-income family. Or even a refugee family.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a version of the game that solves some issues associated with it, may I suggest just buying everything yourself at a dollar store.


Sidebar: To my many UK readers, what do you call the equivalent of “the dollar store” there? Or do you have them?


The rest of the rules:

  • If someone steals your gift, you can steal someone else’s gift or choose and open a wrapped one.
  • Continue until everyone has had a turn for a gift. A turn is ended when an unopened gift has been opened.
  • A gift can only be “stolen” once during a turn. If a gift is taken from someone during one round, she cannot take it back during that same round. She can, however, take it back in a later round if she is in a position to select a gift.
  • Once a gift has had 3 “owners”, the 3rd owner of a gift gets to keep it – it is retired and can’t be stolen again.*
  • The gift exchange ends when the last wrapped gift is chosen and opened.

* We forgot that rule last night; that’s the problem with a game you only play once a year.


This game is also played as the White Elephant Gift Exchange, but in that case people bring gifts “…defined by something of dubious or limited value or an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others. Thus, in its basic form the game calls for people to bring ‘gag’ gifts or gifts they received that they have no use for.” [source] The version we would play at a friend’s annual party started out as gag gifts but morphed into higher quality merchandise. Unfortunately, for a couple of years we didn’t get the memo; we just thought a few people were being extravagant or very generous.

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December 8, 2013

Reconsidering Christmas Shoeboxes

Operation Christmas Child BoxesSeveral years ago I wrote a post here asking some questions about the whole Operation Christmas Child (OCC) thing. As I said a year later, I didn’t want to be a “grinch” when it came to OCC, I just wondered about some big picture issues.  Then last year, I reformatted the whole article to include some points that a reader had left in a comment.

This year, I was prepared to lay the whole subject to rest. Besides, collection for the boxes in our local churches has come and gone. But the article keeps attracting readers, and last week Lucy, a reader, left a comment that reminded me that as OCC grows — now with an online component that allows you to pack and ship a shoebox from the comfort of your own home right up to a much later deadline — people still have misgivings and second thoughts about the program.  Here’s what she wrote:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only one who had serious reservations about the OCC program. I just see it as a well-intentioned venture that, in reality, exports Western materialism. Even given the potential spiritual good, do we want children associating Jesus with wrapped goodies? Isn’t that enough of a problem here in America?

I’m a Christian who thinks Samaritan’s Purse has done wonderful things in helping people around the world. But let’s help children by really making a difference in their lives. World Vision and other ministries have programs where you can contribute toward gifts such as farm animals, wells, small business opportunities for women, etc. Much, much better than trinkets.

And thank you, Lucy for that comment. Organizations like Compassion, Partners International, The Christian and Missionary Alliance and Gospel for Asia are among the many — and I chose ones with both American and Canadian websites —  that allow you to make significant, life-changing donations to an individual or an entire village of the type Lucy describes.

Shoebox sized giving will produce shoebox sized results, and furthermore runs the risks she described in her comment. If you’re reading this on a computer — even in a library somewhere — you are among the richest people in the entire world. This Christmas, literally share the wealth.

There is a saying, Do your giving while you’re living, so you’re knowing where it’s going. The Christmas “gift catalogs” of the four organizations listed above allow you to know exactly where your money is going. Don’t lose this opportunity.

Comments can be made at the original article — first link above.

October 19, 2012

The Shoebox Thing Again

No post here ever got me in so much trouble as this one, when it ran in 2009 and 2010 and I became the Grinch that stole Operation Christmas Child.   I just wanted to be “thinking out loud” and look at the thing from all sides.   That doesn’t mean I would never fill a shoebox. I might just fill it differently. Besides a good blog is nothing if not provocative, right?   Or would you rather not think at all?

Comments are again closed here, but there’s a link to the original November 24, 2009 post where you can add your two cents, or whatever the equivalent is in euros. HOWEVER, this time around we’ve added some additional questions and concerns that came about when Sarah posted her comments. They begin with number 9 in the list below; items 14-16 are from an article she linked to in her comment.

For many years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Franklin Graham’s Operation Christmas Child project. To see the look of ecstasy on the faces of the children in the promotional videos is to really know the joy that comes with giving even something small.

To critique the program would be unthinkable. It would be like criticizing motherhood or apple pie or little kittens. But I have some concerns about this that I had not seen in print or online when I wrote the original post and thought I’d wade out deep into dangerous waters:

  1. A lot of people fill their shoeboxes with trinkets from the dollar store. When these items break — which they will — how will third world children deal with the disappointment that Western kids are accustomed to? Especially if they don’t own much else.
  2. Which begs the question, how are such items disposed of — sooner or later — in countries that don’t have an active recycling program? What happens to all those boxes? As barren and arid as some of those places are, dotting the landscape with red and green boxes seems a bit irresponsible. Maybe they can use the boxes for something.
  3. What’s the mileage on some of the trinkets and toys? Check out the country of origin, factor in the purchase point in the U.S. as an example, and then plot the destination point. We’re talking major carbon footprints. And not the Margaret Fishback Powers kind of footprints.
  4. What about the inequities of what the kids receive? One kid gets a cuddly Gund-type plush animal, while another gets socks. I would be the kid getting the toothpaste and cheap sunglasses, while my friend would get some kind of awesome musical instrument toy. Socks don’t make noise. I would learn jealousy and covetousness all in a single day.
  5. Which begs the question, is there ever theft? World wars have started over lesser things. Do kids in faraway places take the inequities into their own hands? Do they revere the licensed pencil case more than the one with geometric shapes and colors? Is there trading? If so, who sets the rules?
  6. Maybe not. Maybe they share better than kids in the West do. But somewhere along the line, it’s got to create a situation of personal private property. I live on a street with ten houses where everybody owns a lawnmower. We all could probably get by with one or two. What I really need is access to a lawnmower. But human nature being what it is, it rarely works that way unless you’re Shane Claiborne, or you live on an Operation Mobilization ship, or you’re one of the aging hippies living in the Jesus People project in inner-city Chicago. (Apologies to Glenn Kaiser.)
  7. What about expectations? If my kids don’t get what they’re hoping for there is always a great disappointment, and trust me, this year they aren’t getting what they’re hoping for. Reminds of me that old song, “Is That All There Is?” Some people get downright depressed after Christmas. BTW, anyone remember who the artist was on that song?
  8. What’s the follow-up for the giver? None. Unlike sponsored children — which is another discussion entirely — the gift is really a shot in the dark, unless in next year’s video you happen to see a kid opening a box containing a rather unique action figure and a pair of furry dice which you know could only have come from your attic storage the year before. (But furry dice? What were you thinking? The kid’s expression is going to be somewhat quizzical…)
  9. Does this encourage children to value Western cultures more than their own?
  10. Do “shoebox” gifts become better than something simpler made lovingly by a family member?
  11. Are they introducing commercial gift-giving into a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas in that way?
  12. Do they respect people of other faiths who don’t celebrate Christmas at all? Is our intent to evangelize or convert with our gifts?
  13. Do they portray one race/culture as being better or more successful than others?
  14. When we include personal care products such as soap and toothpaste in our gifts, are we sending a message that we feel they are not able to maintain their personal hygiene?  Toothpaste may be perceived as candy. Should we be rethinking some of our efforts to help people?
  15. How do they work to bring about real change, in places where the needs are for justice, peace, and access to the necessities of life?
  16. Imagine yourself as a child living in a family where all resources go to obtaining food and shelter and suddenly you receive a package with a doll or a toy car. What does it feel like to receive something from someone who has such excess income that they can buy something that is not needed?

The link Sarah provided contains many, many position papers on the Shoebox program, that are good reading for any thinking person. Click here to access the .pdf file which contains notes from people who were actively involved in the distribution. Sadly, that article is no longer online.

Okay, so maybe there is  good that outweighs any potential downside. I am NOT saying don’t do this.  But it’s philosophy that I majored in, so somebody’s got to view things from outside the box — the shoebox in this case —  once in awhile. That’s why I call it thinking out loud.

Comments are closed here so that you can add your comment to the original collection on November 24, 2009. Click here.

October 29, 2010

Rethinking Rethinking Shoeboxes

Hey, give me a break.   I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Operation Christmas Child.   I just wanted to be “thinking out loud” and look at the thing from all sides.   That doesn’t mean I would never fill a shoebox.   I might just fill it differently.   Besides a good blog is nothing if not provocative, right?   Or would you rather not think at all?

This time around, comments are closed here, but there’s a link to the original November 24, 2009 post where you can add your two cents, or whatever the equivalent is in euros.

For many years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Franklin Graham’s Operation Christmas Child project. To see the look of ecstasy on the faces of the children in the promotional videos is to really know the joy that comes with giving even something small.

To critique the program would be unthinkable. It would be like criticizing motherhood or apple pie or little kittens. But I have some concerns about this that I haven’t seen heretofore in print or online. So I thought I’d wade out deep into dangerous waters:

  1. A lot of people fill their shoeboxes with trinkets from the dollar store. When these items break — which they will — how will third world children deal with the disappointment that Western kids are accustomed to? Especially if they don’t own much else.
  2. Which begs the question, how are such items disposed of — sooner or later — in countries that don’t have an active recycling program? What happens to all those boxes? As barren and arid as some of those places are, dotting the landscape with red and green boxes seems a bit irresponsible. Maybe they can use the boxes for something.
  3. What’s the mileage on some of the trinkets and toys? Check out the country of origin, factor in the purchase point in the U.S. as an example, and then plot the destination point. We’re talking major carbon footprints. And not the Margaret Fishback Powers kind of footprints.
  4. What about the inequities of what the kids receive? One kid gets a cuddly Gund-type plush animal, while another gets socks. I would be the kid getting the toothpaste and cheap sunglasses, while my friend would get some kind of awesome musical instrument toy. Socks don’t make noise. I would learn jealousy and covetousness all in a single day.
  5. Which begs the question, is there ever theft? World wars have started over lesser things. Do kids in faraway places take the inequities into their own hands? Do they revere the licensed pencil case more than the one with geometric shapes and colors? Is there trading? If so, who sets the rules?
  6. Maybe not. Maybe they share better than kids in the West do. But somewhere along the line, it’s got to create a situation of personal private property. I live on a street with ten houses where everybody owns a lawnmower. We all could probably get by with one or two. What I really need is access to a lawnmower. But human nature being what it is, it rarely works that way unless you’re Shane Claiborne, or you live on an Operation Mobilization ship, or you’re one of the aging hippies living in the Jesus People project in inner-city Chicago. (Apologies to Glenn Kaiser.)
  7. What about expectations? If my kids don’t get what they’re hoping for there is always a great disappointment, and trust me, this year they aren’t getting what they’re hoping for. Reminds of me that old song, “Is That All There Is?” Some people get downright depressed after Christmas. BTW, anyone remember who the artist was on that song?
  8. What’s the follow-up for the giver? None. Unlike sponsored children — which is another discussion entirely — the gift is really a shot in the dark, unless in next year’s video you happen to see a kid opening a box containing a rather unique action figure and a pair of furry dice which you know could only have come from your attic storage the year before. (But furry dice? What were you thinking? The kid’s expression is going to be somewhat quizzical…)

Okay, so maybe the good outweighs any potential downside. I am NOT saying don’t do this.  But it’s philosophy that I majored in, so somebody’s got to view things from outside the box — the shoebox in this case — once in awhile. That’s why I call it thinking out loud.

Comments are closed here so that you can add your comment to the original collection on November 24, 2009. Click here.

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