Gift-giving game makes Merriam Christmas merrier

REALLY REGIONAL DECORATION — This half-way humorous ornament depicts the trials and tribulations of driving during the winter in Maine. (Photo courtesy of Sam Merriam)

REALLY REGIONAL DECORATION — This half-way humorous ornament depicts the trials and tribulations of driving during the winter in Maine. (Photo courtesy of Sam Merriam)

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — One extended family in Southern Maine kept trying to get it right when it came to the gift exchange during their annual Christmas party.

For the past 10 years, the mandate for the Merriam family’s Yankee Swap is that all gifts must be homemade ones. With so many artists in the family, it seemed natural to gravitate in that direction.

According to family member Sam Merriam, of Naples, the gift exchange game has become creative, entertaining, memorable and competitive. Who can create the most coveted gift?

“Since the gifts change from year to year, all original and homemade, the same game never dulls and the zeal for it continues to grow,” Merriam said.

His sister, Cindy Burnham, views this Christmas party activity as a valuable memory-maker for her extended family.

“I enjoy family gatherings that have activities that create good memories,” Burnham said.

The evolution of the Yankee Swap, also known as a white elephant gift exchange, was a money-saving move, she said.

Everyone had so many immediate family members (children, spouses, parents) for whom they needed to buy gifts. To make it easier on the budget, Sam and Cindy’s grown-up siblings agreed to take an artsy-crafty approach to gift giving, she said.

“It challenges their inner artist to come out,” Burnham said, adding that it has been interesting.

“It is like a completive sport,” she said.

Even the children get into the spirit of the adult gift-swap game.

“The kids sit around and watch the Christmas swap. They are really into it. They want to handle the figurines. I can see my grandson next year wanting to do it. He will make something like a NASCAR with Santa Claus in it,” Burnham said.

Sam’s daughter, Elaina, now 14 and in middle school, participated in the adults’ gift exchange game a few years ago.

“Once you get to a certain age or your skill level is” sufficient to make a homemade gift, then the children are allowed to be part of the swap, she said.

“The first year, I made the elephants and my mom saw them and said, ‘You can do it,’ ” Elaina Merriam said.

“I used clay and painted them. I did the elephant from Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer movie,” she said, referring to a character stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys.

She sculpted twin elephants; and alternated the color pattern to make it more interesting. Her father Sam ended up with the clay creation so it has been kept in the family, she said.

Homemade gifts “are more meaningful. When you get it from the store, there is not as much thought or effort. When you are making it yourself, you are trying hard and caring more. I put a lot of thought into it,” she said.

“When I make something, I put all I could into it,” she said.

“And receiving — if you get a homemade gift, it’s more special,” Elaina said.

Sam recalled his experience of making a gift and having it be part of the Yankee Swap.

“One year I made a penguin from Skulpy. It was about three inches tall, adorned with a red scarf and Santa hat. It was really a last-minute thing I made just hours before the party,” he said.

“I was having difficulty that year figuring out what I was going to do up to that point. The idea came suddenly while just holding the gummy clay-like material in my hands. Once sculpted, baked and painted, I placed it inches away from the wood stove to accelerate the drying of the paint. Guests were arriving while it was still tacky and unwrapped,” he said.

“The intense heat really worked and, at the last minute, I entered my wrapped penguin in the game,” he said.

“With nearly 20 other gifts it was placed next to, my penguin was opened early on and got wide praise, more than I felt it deserved because of how little time and thought went into it compared with some of the others,” he said.

“During the game, it got stolen three times. The last to take it was the member who held the number one, who happened to be my nephew. In the game, the person who chooses number one is allowed the final choice and takes whatever one gift he wants away from another member. His choice was my penguin. Wow! Didn’t I feel proud,” Merriam said.

“Further to that I felt motivated to compete and to out-do the others for the next year, assuming we would keep this tradition,” Merriam said.

The Merriam family holiday party was held at the house of Sam and Dawn Merriam on the weekend before Christmas.

This year, Elaina made a trio of tree ornaments.

“This year was fairly easy. I decorated three glass balls with music notes. I took pieces of Christmas music paper and wrapped the ornaments and covered them in glitter,” she said.

As meaningful as crafting Christmas gifts can be, the gathering of family is even better, Elaina said. The combination of first and second cousins — ones who visit on a regular basis and some seen only a few times a year “is nice,” she said.

“We have a houseful of family members. The more people, the merrier,” she said.

“Most of them make food. A few don’t have much time, but every one brings food. Everyone puts an effort into everything,” she said.

“This year, my Uncle Tom (Merriam) had a get-up. He wore a tuxedo and sparkles in his beard and a top hat,” Elaina said.

Her Aunt Cindy, who lives in Litchfield, brought her grandchildren and walked away with heart-warming memories.

This year’s Merriam family Christmas party “was so moving because it was so classic. The children were wonderful together and sang carols together for us without even being prompted by the adults. It was their idea,” Cindy Burnham said.

“I had such a wonderful time at the party. We had a feeling of togetherness and family and it wasn’t commercialized,” she said.

“The art competition/Christmas gift swap is a game we play that build those memories,” she said.


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