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Why My Family Loves Giving Leftover Junk

Every year, without fail, we punk each other with a circular economy of random stuff that nobody wants and never needed to begin with.

The practice has taken on a life of its own in my big, riotous Irish Catholic family. One year, when my mom was in her 20s and working in New York City, she came home to New Jersey for Christmas. She was living in a small apartment in the city at the time, so she had left some clothes in her childhood bedroom. When the family began exchanging gifts in the living room, my mom was horrified to discover that Nana had taken her favorite black coat and rewrapped it for another aunt named Loretta. “ ‘I love this!’” my mom remembers Aunt Loretta saying. “ ‘This is absolutely beautiful!’”

As a kid, I was not privy to the joke of the rewrap. I was only introduced to the game as a young adult, and I found myself perplexed as to how this bizarre joke could be a form of affection. To be sure, rewraps are just the hors d’oeuvres to our more traditional gifts, which, we are lucky, have never been in short supply. But in my nomadic 20s, I could not understand how my mom thought it was nice or funny to rewrap and gift me arbitrary home goods I had little use for — from soap bars to salad tongs — often without even bothering to change the packaging.

As earnest as it sounds, I’ve always taken gift-giving seriously. Before the pandemic, I lived and worked abroad in Hong Kong as a journalist for three years. Being away from my family in the U.S. was difficult, so collecting gifts during my travels became an important way for me to nurture my relationships from across the Pacific. From 1920s panoramas of the Hong Kong skyline to soy-sauce dishes from local markets, I stuffed my suitcase with handpicked souvenirs from my faraway life that we could relish together at home. So to receive a leftover bottle of wine after spending hours on typewritten cards felt like showing up to a “friend date” thinking it’s an actual date.

Then a few years ago, my family hosted about a dozen of us for a Secret Santa gift exchange on Christmas. I had forgotten to buy a gift and, for once, decided I would pull a rewrap: a pair of unopened binoculars from the last Secret Santa. But as the group started to pick out gifts — a unicorn neck pillow, pink sequined slippers, “Ass Reaper” hot sauce (decorated with a little Grim Reaper mask) — one by one, we realized these had all been rewrapped from our previous exchanges. The room howled with laughter, myself included. Finally, I got the joke. As we tossed around the junk, I felt seen by and close to my family in a way I thought only my gifting style could achieve, and living out Nana’s most important lesson: to never take life too seriously. It was as if I, too, had discovered in my rewrap a forgotten note from Nana telling me, as she always does: “Have fun, dear.”

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