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Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but it’s time to come clean. As a child, I was a brat when it came to Hanukkah presents. In my defense, I was young and driven wild by the mystery of brightly colored packages.

To fully understand my bratty behavior I feel the need to explain the nature of Hanukkah from the perspective of an 8 year old child. I know Hanukkah seems glamorous with 8 days of presents, delicious fried foods you are religiously obligated to eat and the parentally sanctioned opportunity to play with fire. But, the way the presents are doled out is torturous.

My Christian friends would get to stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve to open a present. On Christmas morning, they woke up and ran for the bounty Santa left beneath their trees. They unwrapped everything at once – the utilitarian gifts lost in the glitz of the coveted toys, games and books. Then, they had a week’s vacation from school to stay home and play with all their new loot.

The experience was completely different for me as a Jewish child. More often than not, Hanukkah fell when school was still in session. I’d sit in school all day trying to focus on my work, but my mind would drift to selecting the perfect present from the pile of gifts with my name on them. Choosing wisely was crucial. If I made an error, and selected the package with socks, I’d have to wait 24 more hours to get the item I had been hoping for. When the school day finally ended, I raced home to do my homework while waiting for darkness to come.  The moment the sun dipped below the horizon, I began pacing past the window waiting for my dad to come home from work.  To keep me at bay for a little while, my mom let me put the candles in the menorah and choose that night’s gift. After  careful analysis of the shapes of the wrapped boxes and a comparison of the items on my wish list, I made my selection.  What seemed like hours later, my dad came home. We said our prayers, lit our candles and unveiled the gift du jour.  Sadly, I had little time to play with my new treasure before I needed to get ready for bed because it was a “school night.”

When I was 8 years old, my big Hanukkah wish was for the eight-track cartridge of the soundtrack from the movie Grease. This was the gift I wanted to open on the first night, thus ensuring 7 extra days of enjoying the music. By chance that year, my brother stumbled upon the pile of wrapped gifts in the back of a closet. He wasn’t looking for them, but a find such as this could not go unexplored.

I had a brilliant idea! When my parents were busy doing whatever it is that keeps parents busy, my brother and I snuck into the closet with a notepad and a roll of scotch tape. Very gently, I unwrapped the corner of each of my packages. Obviously, the contents of the clothing boxes were unidentifiable, but most of the other boxes were. I took precise notes, re-taped the corner of each box and snuck out of the closet. Later that night, I reviewed my list then sequenced the gifts in order of priority for opening. The Grease eight-track cartridge was number one.

The first night of Hanukkah arrived. Before I went to the pile to select that night’s gift, I consulted my list. I chose the box that I was certain contained the Grease soundtrack and ripped the wrapping paper off with glee. To my great surprise and horror, I was wrong! It wasn’t the cartridge. It was underwear. Underwear! On the first night of Hanukkah!

The beauty of Hanukkah is that there is always tomorrow. The next night, I spent more time studying my list and was more careful when selecting my package. Again I was wrong. That night it was a set of Little House on the Prairie books. A great gift for sure, but where was that Grease cartridge? How could I be making such foolish mistakes after such careful and thoughtful planning? Night after night, I was sure I had plucked the Grease soundtrack from the pile and night after night I was stunned when I unwrapped something that wasn’t the Grease soundtrack. I got wonderful presents, but I was stymied.

Finally, the 8th night of Hanukkah arrived. This was it; the last night. Tonight’s gift had to be the Grease soundtrack. I had waited an extra week, but at least I knew I would finally get to hear the sweet sounds of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. I could barely contain myself as the day wore on. We said our prayers and lit our candles, all the while the tune to “Summer Nights’” playing in my head.  My parents handed me my last package. I tore off the wrapping paper with a huge smile on my face. I had already started yelling an excited thank you, before I looked down and saw that I was holding a box of Nilla Wafer cookies.

What happened after that is not my proudest moment as a child. Even now, 35 years later, I’m embarrassed to write about it; I pitched the brattiest of bratty fits.

“Cookies?!” I sputtered almost too upset to speak. “Who gets cookies for Hanukkah?!”

“I’m sure lots of children would love to receive a whole box of cookies,” my mom said.

“But these aren’t even the kind of cookies I like to eat. These are Daddy’s favorite cookies!” I yelled. “Here, you can have them,” I said putting the box of cookies down in front of my father before I stormed off to my bedroom and slammed the door.

I sat in the middle of my room trying to figure out how I could have been so wrong about getting the Grease soundtrack. A few minutes later dad knocked and entered my room holding the box of Nilla Wafers.

“Don’t you want any of your cookies?” he asked holding out the box.

“No! I don’t like those cookies. You can have them all,” I said dejectedly.

Dad held the box out to me. “Why don’t you open the box for me?”

“You’re already holding the box.  You can open it for yourself,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s your Hanukkah present so you should really offer the cookies to me,” he said shaking the box in front of me.

I could see he wasn’t going to leave me alone to sulk in peace until I gave him a cookie. Reluctantly, I took the box and opened it. As I was passing the box back to him, I saw that it didn’t contain cookies; it contained the Grease soundtrack! A huge smile spread across my bratty little face.  I jumped up and hugged my dad.

“Next time, do a better job of rewrapping your presents,” he said laughing as he walked away.

I learned two things that year: never ruin my surprises and always fold the corners neatly when wrapping a present.

**No matter what kind of packages your holiday surprises come in this year, I hope they are filled with laughter and love. **

About Paprika Furstenburg

I was born with an overly developed sense of humor and poor coordination. The combination of these two character traits has taught me humility and given me the perspective to find the funny in everyday experiences.

38 responses »

  1. enjoyed this story! too funny.
    i grew up with Christmas, but seeing as my parents came from Europe, i only needed to wait until Christmas Eve before the presents were opened because that was when we celebrated and enjoyed the Bescherung, which is what we called the Christmas Eve bounty.
    one year i happened upon a present that i knew could only be intended for me several weeks before Christmas, and i was not looking for it. but there it was in the guest room closet when i was looking for something else entirely, and with no intention of snooping. while i was thrilled by my inadvertent discovery, i was also torn and did not tell my mother.
    ironically when Christmas Eve came, i received a heavy present and could not determine what it was, and when i opened it, it turned out to be a can of corn or beans or something which had been added for weight, along with the gift i had seen just a few weeks earlier. i certainly did not expect my gift to be in there, and so my surprise and joy were genuine. i didn’t have the heart to tell my parents i had known that it was coming. although now after reading your post i have to wonder if they didn’t know all along…. 🙂
    but i’m with you – i never had a desire to play holiday sleuth and ruin it for myself.

  2. Great story, Paprika. Your parents were smart cookies and outfoxed you. But you got the gift you wanted.

    Don’t think all of us celebrating Christmas got to dive in all at once, becoming a blur behind ripped wrapping paper. My folks tortured us by letting us open only one gift Christmas morning before we went to church. (There were no gifts on Christmas Eve.) We might have been allowed to open one more before lunch. But, then, we had to wait until after lunch to open the rest. Part of this was clever on my folks’ part. They didn’t go overboard on Christmas gifts. So stretching out the opening of gifts made it seem like more. 😉

    • In the end, I did get the gift I wanted and a lesson learned the hard way.

      Your family’s way of unwrapping sounds as torturous as ours was. Thanks for letting me know I wasn’t alone 🙂

      Have a wonderful Christmas!

  3. I am laughing as I write this. I suspect every child must have done this at least once! This trick is how my brother and I discovered there was no Santa Clause, it was a terrible discovery.

  4. I got the Grease record album, a double I think, for my birthday. I totally understand why you wanted it. I LOVED this blog. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  5. There is an old Jewish joke that my father-in-law loves to tell that is totally along the lines of what happened to you. But I think it’s a bit long to write it out in the comments section. I bet that’s where your parents got the idea from.
    Anyways, I hope you enjoyed Grease and Shmaltzy Chanukah!

    • I”ll have to ask my dad if he knows the joke you mentioned.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack after all I went through to get it. To this day, I never peek at my presents. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way.

  6. What a great lesson to learn at the young age of 8! I can imagine that you weren’t so good at rewrapping that that age! This holiday season I decided to look back at the Christmas I got a bike. Trying to find out what is in the package ahead of time and getting the long awaited bike are two of those classic holiday stories that so many of us share.

    • I can only imagine how badly I re-wrapped those presents. I thought I was so clever. Too bad I wasn’t clever enough to realize that my parents were even more clever.

      I guess anticipation and the inevitable peeking that causes are a rite of passage.

  7. I acquired the art of re-wrapping at a very young age….as well as the talent of acting surprised at seeing a gift for the “first” time. Both skills have served me well over the years. As a parent, I found the best defense for little prying eyes was a good hiding place….and I have been a master at that. Thanks for bringing back a flood of warm childhood memories and a recollection of all the places my parents thought my gifts were well-hidden.

    • I really never had the wrapping or acting skills to pull of what you did. Something always gave me away. Usually an uncontrollable giggle. After this incident, I had to give up my life of deceit and come clean. I never peeked at my presents again.

      So happy that this post brought back happy memories from the ghost of Hanukkahs past. 🙂

  8. hahahahaha – that’s greatness! I will admit that there were plenty of times I cheated… either opening the presents to see what they were (Until my parents wizened up and labeled the gifts “To: Rudolph” “To: Dasher”. and “To: Comet” so my brother, sister and I couldn’t tell which was ours!) and even then, I’d sneak out of bed and go check out what Santa left and then go back to bed!
    Glad to know it wasn’t just me!

    • Tagging the gifts with reindeer names is a very clever idea. I probably would have just opened them all and tried to crack the reindeer code.

      After reading everyone’s comments, I’m not feeling so bad about what I did. To think, I’ve lived with 35 years of shame and it turns out everyone has the same little secret 🙂

  9. What a story teller you are!
    That worry in school over which package to choose. Anticipation is worth something….
    We used to disguise gifts, too…but heavy bricks in bottom of boxes..we were allowed to shake packages…were those bells distraction or part of the gift?
    (And yes, neatly refold the corners and use the same kind of tape…learned that, too.)
    Lots of chuckles in this post

    • Ohhh… I love the idea of not just disguising the gifts in alternative packages, but adding sounds and additional weight. Brilliant! I’ll have to remember that next year.

      Thanks so much for your compliment. Glad I could spread some holiday cheer.

  10. Good one, once again. I could totally relate to what you went through, and so could my children (who apparently never forgot those very “practical” gifts). The best was including the Grease video – it has inspired me to listen to the soundtrack yet again (haven’t in years). And, I share your dad’s love of Nilla cookies, which I also have a sudden urge for.

    Also, thanks for the beautiful holiday card – your “guys” look adorable. Our Waffle (Jenny’s cat) is with us now along with Jenny (I don’t know who brought who on the plane!). Of course, we are also going to Disney…(Waffle will have a cat sitter)

    Happy New Year and enjoy your time off! Love, Paula

    On Wed, Dec 18, 2013 at 6:14 AM, Good Humored

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the story so much. Sorry to cause any cravings for Nilla wafers. To this day, I still don’t like those cookies. It’s probably due to the traumatic experience from that Hanukkah.

      Have a great visit with Jenny and Waffle!

  11. So wonderful… I HAD to repost it on my blog. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Pingback: 551 days to go…An article about the holidays! | Vicki Travels

  13. Another brilliantly written story – what more could one ask for? Mischief, suspense, and a lesson learned, all while being hilarious! Keep up the good work! Of course, I’m a bit biased. Love, me

  14. I just discovered your blog this week. What a great story, Paprika! Funny AND heartwarming. LOVE your dad’s comment! … and as a fellow Jewish girl from the same era, I love your line about “delicious fried foods you are religiously obligated to eat!” Thanks for starting my day with a smile!

    • I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the story so much and that I could start your day off with a smile. I love knowing that I brought a bright spot to someone’s day. So glad I didn’t make you regret your decision to subscribe to Good Humored 🙂

  15. I only found my gift one year and it was the St. Nicholas gift we got in early December. After that my mom would store my gifts at the neighbors house. Bummer.

  16. Great story. We always cheated, but never got caught. I’ve been getting away with stuff ever since.

    • Thanks, Elyse! Glad you enjoyed the story.

      Before this incident I was a big shaker of packages. This was the first time I ever violated the security of the wrapping paper. It was also the last. I was scared straight after this.

  17. A beautifully written depiction of the anticipation of the Chanukah gelt!! I suffered right along with you for that anticipated special gift!! xoxo

  18. LOL! Oh, that is hilarious, Paprika – thank you for sharing!


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