The first time I played The Stealing Game was probably eight years ago at a PTA holiday party. We were asked to bring a wrapped gift worth about $10. Everyone picked a number out of a hat and it was in that order that we selected our gifts from a big table display. You chose a gift. Opened it. Showed it around. And then the next gift selector could choose from the table display, or steal your gift.
It shows how much I’ve evolved over the years that that first time I played I was completely horrified by what I thought was the most barbaric game ever invented, and now I count the days until one of these gift exchanges takes place.
There are now two of these events that I’m invited to every year. One with the women in my neighborhood and the other with my tennis group. Both gatherings have the same rule – no one is to buy a gift new. We are to bring something that we’ve received as a gift but don’t want. A White Elephant exchange, if you will.
My neighborhood group got together a few weeks ago at a local bar and we filled a table with wrapped boxes and gift bags. It is inherently understood that every gift on the table will be awful. No one has high hopes of coming away with a prize. The whole point of the game is just to go through the process of giving. And getting. And stealing.
Some people are better stealers than others. And, as is true in most situations where (even) a (crappy) prize is available, people’s true colors are bound to come out.
The gift I brought was a square glass cheese plate – pink, green and blue paisley -- with a matching cheese knife. It was not something that would go well with most entertaining accessories unless perhaps it was 1969 and you were entertaining the cast of Laugh-In. However, I’m a bit of a sucker for paisley, so I “stole” this gift during last year’s tennis exchange. Unfortunately, I never once used it. I never even took the ribbon from around it. So I stuck it in a gift bag and offered it up to this new group.
We all picked numbers. I was Number Seven. The best number to get is One, because you get your choice of every gift and you get another turn at the very end to steal whatever anyone else has chosen. For most of us, this game provides the perfect real-life opportunity to practice non-attachment to things you erroneously believe are yours.
When my turn came, there were already a few interesting things that had been opened. A cookbook. A nice grill brush. A curious little indoor waterfall. There’s a whole Let’s Make A Deal mentality when it’s your turn to pick: should I go with what I see before me – or should I take a chance and pick Door Number Two?
I did select a new gift, mainly because I liked the tissue paper that it was wrapped in. I opened it up and it became immediately clear that there actually was a “prize” in this game, and that I’d just unwittingly picked it.
My gift was a beaded evening bag. It was tasteful, beautiful and elegant. I held it up to show it off and it was like ten hungry wolves just feasted their eyes on dinner.
“I love this!” I said.
“There’s no way you’re going home with that, girlfriend,” said one of the women. You could see the gears beginning to turn in all their collective heads.
Number Eight’s turn was next and she apologetically (but swiftly) took the purse from me. “You can borrow it whenever you want,” she said.
Number Nine took the purse from Number Eight, less apologetic, but just as swift. Number Ten made it seem like she was going to take a gift from the table but she, too, took the handbag.
Then it was Number One’s turn again. Number One, who had ended up with a butt-ugly piece of jewelry as her initial selection. Who had proclaimed herself a “terrible stealer.” Who looked longingly at the purse – the only appealing gift at the table.
We all held our breaths to see what she would do. And then she made her choice.