As a child, my Christmases were lean: the orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking a coveted treasure each year. And for many reasons when I was a child, Christmas was a time of tension and anxiety for my family. That’s always been my excuse, as an adult, for viewing Christmas as one of the best opportunities all year to exercise my revenge on the past; a time to lavish gifts, affection and fun on friends and family. At Christmas, less is not more, more is more, and bah, humbug to everyone who thinks this somehow makes Christmas commercial. Quantity has always been appealing, but the gifts can be modest and practical too, and so at Christmas I always gave my own children gift-wrapped packages of pajamas, socks and mittens in addition to toys, books, and games.
When my own children were still young we began writing clues on the tags. Originally, the clues were helpful (e.g., “Merry Christmas, C - the cat’s ______s” was the clue for a pair of pajamas). But eventually, we realized that it was even more fun to have the clues either obscure (“What rhymes with devotion but is not a love potion and didn’t come from the ocean” - scented lotion...) or downright misleading (“Merry Christmas, M - you don’t think earmuffs are dorky, do you?” for a video game he’d been coveting).
Christmas Eve always found us sitting in front of the fireplace, passing out gifts, one at a time, reading clues and trying to guess what was in the package before it was opened. We always began with the youngest and went on up through the oldest. It took hours to open all the gifts in this way, but even after getting divorced I kept up this tradition, because it’s a lot of fun.
Somewhere along the way, long before the show, "You've been punk'd", we began coming up with one “punk'd” gift each year. The punk'd gift always had an element of spontaneity, in that the punking was never consciously assigned or rotated among family members, it just evolved, depending on circumstances.
In 2005, with everyone grown, for the first time ever we drew names. Everyone was more than a little concerned about how it would all work; going from hours of opening gifts on Christmas Eve to opening just one or two gifts per person. That year, there would be 10 at my house on Christmas Eve, but no one knew whose names anyone other than themselves had drawn.
However, when one of my sons, M, and my younger daughter, K, were stumped as to what to get their oldest sister, A, and her fiance, C, whose names they'd drawn, M and K called me up and asked for suggestions. I suggested Lyric Opera tickets, because A and C were in grad school in Chicago at the time, and I knew that tickets to the opera was a luxury both of them would enjoy that simply wasn’t in their graduate student budget.
K and M both agreed it was a good idea, and that's where the fun began. K is younger than A by almost 3 years. There’s always been a certain amount of sibling rivalry between the two, with K feeling that A discounted many of her ideas in an older/younger sibling sort of way. Given that history, K said that she wanted to think up bogus tickets to something awful, with the idea that A and C would think it was K’s flawed idea of a good time. M and I loved the idea, and proceeded to let it stew in the back of our minds.
A couple of nights before A and C were due to arrive for Christmas, I met K and M for a quick bite to eat.
“I’ve got an idea for an AWFUL show,” I said.
In response to K’s, “What is it?” I said, “Hamlet on Ice.”
Understand, insofar as I know, there is no such show, and probably for very good reason. K came up with the idea of saying she’d heard about the show by listening to the end of a review on NPR (“Dunno whether they thought it was good or bad, because I tuned in too late, but they reviewed it!”). We also came up with the idea that the show was conceived when a group of actors who’d been performing Hamlet in Denmark went ice skating one night, after the show, and decided it would be a natural idea to perform Hamlet on ice. It sounded believable and incredibly awful. K was immediately having fun punning: “Something’s rotten in the SKATE of Denmark”.
M spent all day Christmas Eve designing and producing a set of bogus tickets. It didn't hurt that he was working on a BFA. He issued the tickets for Allstate Arena, an actual arena north of O’Hare airport in Chicago, and dated the tickets for an incredibly inconvenient 7 PM Wednesday night performance. Among other things, A was tutoring on Wednesdays, and this meant she’d not only have to miss tutoring (which was frowned upon) but she’d have to come up with a substitute tutor (no easy task). M priced the bogus tickets at $58.00 each (slightly over our limit of $50 per person) and issued them not only for separate seats, but for separate ROWS. K bought card stock on which to print the tickets, and she also bought a perforating machine from an office supply store where a clerk questioned the legality of what we were doing, but didn't hesitate to sell K the perforating machine anyway.
The tickets looked and felt like real tickets. A and C were nothing short of amazed when they opened the envelope containing them. They thanked K and M profusely, and insisted they were thrilled with receiving tickets to Hamlet on Ice on a Wednesday evening at an arena so far from their apartment that they’d have to leave by 4:00 to get there by 7:00, only to be sitting three rows and several seats apart from each other. K pouted, “I don’t think you really like these tickets!” and they protested, “No, we DO, it’s just that we’ve never heard of Hamlet on Ice...” They had to take a cigarette break by themselves on the patio to process this “gift”.
As usual, gift opening continued in an orderly fashion for another 45 minutes or so, at which time K, M and I descended upon A and C and exclaimed loudly: “Merry Christmas! You’ve been PUNK'D!” and proceeded to give them the real tickets:
Two seats, together, to a Friday night Lyric Opera performance
of Verdi's Rigoletto.
In spite of the big change in the number of gifts, it was a very Merry Christmas.