Christmases Past

Christmas was always a huge deal when I was young. It was my mom’s favorite holiday by far. We would always crank up some Christmas songs on our giant cabinet stereo (later a smaller model) and deck out our formal living room (which we used pretty much only ever for Christmas and my parents’ occasional bridge club). It’s a tradition I’ve carried forward into my adulthood with my family.

I hadn’t thought about the old family traditions a whole lot until my wife recently brought home a candle chime device similar to one I grew up with that I had entirely forgotten about. The idea is that the heat from these four little candles set into a base rises and turns a horizontal propeller, which in turn causes little metal figures to twirl about. They dangle little metal rods that ting against a couple of bells. It was always such a treat to get this thing out and fire it up when I was young, so it was a nice bit of nostalgia this year.

Remembering this device made me want to go back and look at some old Christmas photos, and I here share a few for posterity. Reader, be warned: I was an unlovely child.

The quality of Santas has really gone up since I was a kid (pictured here in 1978). I clearly wasn’t buying it.
A year older and wiser, I’m more willing to give this guy a chance, though I’m clearly not convinced. Also, Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk called — he wants his haircut back.
Christmases were always huge when I was a kid, just loads and loads of big toys from Santa, plus lots of packages under the tree. Stockings were fruit and nut heavy, though.
In 1981, I guess both the Hulk and the Lone Ranger were popular.
I believe the outfit here is an Army type uniform, with the white section you could write your name on. There may’ve been a helmet too, and I think maybe walkie talkies. I hang some of the ornaments seen here on my tree still today. The little red and white stocking ornament was one of many that my grandmother crocheted.
At six, I seem to’ve become resigned to Santa lap-sitting, clearly less than joyful perhaps because prosthetic beard technology has really not improved at all during the whole of my life to date.

Secret Santa

My wife has five siblings with something like a 15 year spread from oldest to youngest. That’s a lot of adult siblings to buy Christmas presents for when you’re the youngest in high school or college, so when the youngest were younger, we decided to do a Secret Santa exchange at Christmas. Siblings and significant others (who’ve been around for a while) play along, and everybody draws a name and gets a gift for one among the group. It’s nice because instead of stressing over being more frugal about gifts for a whole bunch of people, we can try to think about one person and get something thoughtful and with less concern about balancing the old budget.

Because I write code for a living, I volunteered years ago to automate this so that it could be truly random and truly secret, and also to impose certain necessary restrictions. For example, I’ll already be getting gifts for my wife, so I shouldn’t get to draw her name in the Secret Santa drawing. As we’ve added more significant others to the mix over the years, the restrictions have become more, well, restrictive.

A couple of years ago, I found some bugs in my code that made it sort of surprising that we’d never had a big snafu. It was possible (though unlikely) for a person to get drawn twice, if I recall correctly. The code does record who drew whom, but I use some simple reversible encryption to obscure the data so that even if I view the data, I can’t tell who drew whom without jumping through some hoops to decrypt the data. It looks like this:

mysql> select id, selected, selectee, spouse from people;
| id | selected | selectee                   | spouse |
|  1 |        1 | Š­ð·4Ì9ΟO*Ú                |      2 |
|  2 |        1 | àßúœÉsë1‘™                 |      1 |
|  3 |        1 | 4èàÿ|tB Ýá)Öœ–             |      0 |
|  4 |        1 | Ñkdt»ÙŽ¼üHÚ©z%             |      8 |
|  5 |        1 | ã,oŒô-ârvó-b               |     11 |
|  6 |        1 | (Ûk;Öîì(:vû^­ƒ€             |     13 |
|  7 |        1 | Éãä“úHàücLݦÙ5*            |     12 |
|  8 |        1 | åÐï÷¡I•Ò0Ñ´Y               |      4 |
| 12 |        1 | Á/ðE™©„“Ü%                 |      7 |
| 11 |        1 | ®§V$]n1½ŽÂÎw«y             |      5 |
| 13 |        1 | †Ì>í…²”[Å*çƒ@©             |      6 |

So even if someone had in the past been selected to receive more than one gift, it wouldn’t have been readily obvious, and it would have been tricky to fix, since the code fires off an email to everybody letting them know whose name they were assigned.

So say Joe and Bob both draw Mary. They’d each get an email letting them know to get a gift for Mary, and unless I snooped a bit, I wouldn’t notice, and even if I did notice, I’d have to regenerate the assignments for the whole group, which’d result in confusion. Inevitably somebody would wind up looking at the older email, and we’d have chaos. Luckily, we had no snafus, and I fixed the bug.

I have occasionally played with the idea of mixing things up a bit, though. For example, I think it’d be fun to make everybody get me a gift. Or, to put a less actually selfish spin on it, it’d be sort of fun to make everybody get me a gift and then in turn get everybody else a gift. I’m far too lazy for that, though, so once again we’ve got a random selection (within the usual constraints), and hopefully everybody winds up being happy with it.


A few highlights from our Christmas.