December 18, 2008 You Better Watch Out: This Year the Jokes on You By ALLEN SALKIN SOME Christmas presents are heartwarming, thoughtfully capturing the spirit of the season. A new crutch for Tiny Tim comes to mind, or a plane ticket to Paris for a spinster aunt who has always longed to visit Europe. Or a wreath covered in electric lights around a weird porcelain monkey head that has its mouth open in a scream. Ah, yes. The gag gift. The screaming-monkey wreath was the brainchild of Gabe Sebastian, whose family has a tradition of conducting a Christmas morning lottery in which one family member produces, and another wins, the door prize. Other years had yielded a needlepoint outhouse, a photo of a less-than-fit male family member posing in nothing but a red boa, and a toilet-plunger lamp. His wifes cousins wife, Anne Morris, won the drawing, held in Montrose, Colo., in 2003 and unwrapped what Mr. Sebastian had been dreaming up. She cursed in fright and turned red. But eventually the groups laughter replaced shock. People were like, This is what youve been talking about for half a decade now? said Christopher Morris, another relative. Few recall the other gifts exchanged that day; everyone remembers the screaming-monkey wreath. And thats just the idea. When it comes to holiday gifts, sincerity can be wonderful. But sometimes stupid wins the day. The gag gift is a stubborn holiday tradition in many families and small circles of long-term friends. Often repeated, with variations, year in and year out, a gag gift can become so elaborate that few remember why or how it all started. Newcomers to family circles are often baffled. Or alarmed. Or disgusted. And yet, in a season when the pressures of gift giving of spending hundreds of dollars in a dismal economy for someone who may or may not appreciate all the effort (and expense) a gag gift can be just the right way to let some air out. Its a way to show people you care, said Jeff Snoonian, a contractor in Haverhill, Mass., who bought himself and his brother matching electric-blue velour jumpsuits and pinkie rings, total cost $90, for Christmas in 2002. You can think about them and spend money, or you can think about them a little more and do something clever. The year before he gave the velour outfits, Mr. Snoonian put together a grab bag of 99-cent-store gifts. Everyone took a turn and blindly drew, he said. You know how people will yell out, Look, I got a sweater? Well they were yelling out, Look at me, I got a Jesus air freshener. Mr. Snoonians parents had divorced, and the idea of a serious observance of the holiday seemed ridiculous, he said. The whole day turns into a fiasco because youre driving here and driving there. I just wanted to make fun of it a little bit. The single-use gag gift is one variety. More common, it seems, is the recurring gag gift, which, like Sorrow the stuffed dog in the novel The Hotel New Hampshire, finds a way to pop up year after year. There is, for instance, Steve. When Jenny Lawhorn and Weiman Seid moved into an apartment with three others at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1990, they found a framed photo left behind by previous tenants. It showed a young man with a winged haircut. No one knew him. He was named Steve and put on display. After graduation one of the roommates took Steve home, and come Christmas he gave a nicely wrapped gift to Weiman, Ms. Lawhorn recalled. Weiman thought he was getting a real gift and was giggle-licious when he opened the gift to find Steve. The next Christmas, Mr. Seid gave the photo to another ex-roommate, who was stunned to see Steve when she tore off the wrapping. It was never stated explicitly that the regifting of Steve would continue forever. It has just happened that nearly every year, one of the former roommates unwraps a present and finds Steve. My last brush with Steve was in 2004, Ms. Lawhorn said, recalling the year she was invited for the holidays to the home of another ex-roommate. She gave me a box that was the size of a department-store gift box. I assumed she had given me a baby gift, an outfit, because I had just had my daughter. Instead of a onesie, it was Steve, still as he ever was, somewhere in his late teens, smiling. Thats the thing about Steve: you dont remember hes around, and you dont expect him because he only comes around every seven or eight years, she said. Lauren Mullaney, a marketing executive in San Francisco, gave her father, who has a habit of eating off his offsprings plates, a telescoping fork as a stocking stuffer. To their dismay, he started using it regularly, said her brother, Thomas M. Mullaney. *SNIP* What Is The Worst Christmas Gift You Have Received? Was it a gag gift or did the giver really think you needed a mother-of-pearl back scratcher?