Every year as the holiday season is thrust upon us, we see houses and shopping malls decorated with multicolored lights, push through bustling crowds and witness forests denuded of anything green that will fit in the back of an SUV.
All of these harbingers of Yule soon reach a crescendo, like the political ads in late October. But for me, the cacophony reminds me of my impending date with the Pashtun traders of Leawood.
Pashtun are Afghani tribesman renowned for their cunning, resourcefulness and ability to haggle over the smallest point for days on end simply for the sheer joy of it. They are, by and large, illiterate, keeping track of complex transactions in their heads. They are fiercely loyal and devious fighters. The women in my family are similar in nature — at least around Christmas.
My mother-in-law, my wife and her sister make Christmas gift giving so complicated and convoluted it makes your head spin. Though they seem to speak in a different language, after 30 years I have some idea of the routine.
They buy presents on behalf of one another — gifts they know that the others want to give. The hushed phone calls that precipitate the trading day go like this: “I found a bicycle for the Kelly doll at Target. It’s $4 less than it was at Marshall’s last week. I’m getting two.”
“Good. If you find a small in the blue jumper while you’re there, get that, too.”
“I will. You should call mom and see if she found the horse for Nellie.” (Nellie is not a real person, but a doll. This fact does not deter the Pashtuns in the slightest from their mission.)
They are like toy savants, spouting arcane information about each toy’s location, price and manufacturing specifics. Some might be able to count a box of toothpicks as it falls to the ground, but my sister-in-law will know the inventory status for every American Girl knock-off in the Kansas City metro.
Something this complicated is not without its potential pitfalls. It is possible that the giver may never actually see the present before it is opened on Christmas Day by the receiver. It’s like arbitrage: You buy and sell without ever touching. This can lead to moments that should be awkward. “Oh, I like this. Who’s it from?”
“I think that’s from me. I’ll have to ask Michele.”
The line is said with no hint of embarrassment or awkwardness; this is completely normal here. It’s not the gift, but the thought that counts and with my family it doesn’t even have to be your thought.
They keep track of all purchases in their heads and then settle up after Christmas dinner. My wife has never balanced a checkbook.
Yet these three will be able to recite each other’s purchases over the last 60 days and settle up the differences to the penny — doing it all in their heads. Each will independently verify the correct figure instantly.
Someone will state: “I owe Lauren $7.16 and Mom owes me $11.38.”
Let this sink in. This is akin to Magellan circumnavigating the globe using only a sextant and an hourglass and finding his way right back to Genoa. The total expenditure will be over $1,000. Nothing is ever written down.
The figure is verified in a roundabout way: “Does that include the extra shirts for Andy? It sounds low to me.”
It isn’t low. The figure is never off. It is imperative that there be a reckoning of the expenses. It’s as though Christmas didn’t happen if they don’t relive each purchase.
So, while the rest of the family is dozing in front of the football game, the matriarchs are writing checks to each other for 11 cents, and scheming for next Christmas. Christmas traditions come in all shapes and sizes you see.
If you tell my mother-in-law your size, she can shop for yours, too.
Dave Claflin is a resident of Leawood, the father of four daughters (triplets, plus one), and is the chief story teller at c2 creative marketing and communications, www.c2creativity.com