Why My Family Loves Giving Leftover Junk

On Christmas morning last year, most of the gifts under my family’s tree were adorned in filmy old drugstore wrapping paper: green plaid, snowflakes, Santa Claus. So when my mom passed me a pristine white rectangular box, I got excited. It stood out from the Amazon Prime boxes in its impeccable condition, and it was heavy too. My excitement only mounted when I saw my mom’s grin, which stretched to her ears. I undid the magnetic seal to discover a bottle of sparkling wine, coated in a tacky gold glitter, along with two flutes (one broken) and a confetti popper — a great gift for a New Year’s Eve party I had no plans to attend.

For a moment, as I sifted through the box trying not to slice my fingers on the broken glass, I was slightly offended by what seemed like leftover office-holiday-​party swag. I looked up at my mom, whose face was pink with glee, and realized it was exactly that. “Rewrap!” she hollered, clapping her hands. My family erupted into a laughter that made the Christmas tree ornaments jingle. I should’ve known.

That morning, I became the latest dupe in a relentless family tradition that we call “the rewrap,” whereby we not-so-subtly repackage unwanted gifts and pass them off to one another as “new.” 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 tradition can be traced back to my grandmother, Nana Pat. As a mother of five children and host to dozens of friends and extended family on Christmas, individual gifts were not always feasible for Nana. So when the holidays rolled around, she started searching around the house for past unused gifts, and quietly began rewrapping them. In the late ’70s, she became a second-grade schoolteacher, and over the holidays her students’ parents would give her gifts of appreciation. Her mischief went undetected for years, until one Christmas when Nana blew her own cover: She had rewrapped a glass decanter for an aunt named Mary, who discovered a note thanking Nana for a great semester.

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.”

And so that’s what we do. Last year, I brought a partner home for Christmas for the first time. As I stewed over my rewrapped wine, I watched in trepidation as my mom passed him a gift, and he proceeded to open yet another rewrapped bottle of wine. Thankfully, he got the joke and laughed along. I was glad, because humor is my family’s love language, and the rewrap is our favorite inside joke. With a holiday season so often tainted by expectations of big bows and hefty price tags, the rewrap is a cherished antidote, a reminder of what matters most: a good laugh with the family. For us, saying “I got you” is like saying “I love you.”

Casey Quackenbush is a journalist based in New York, formerly with Time magazine in Hong Kong. Her work can be found in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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