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A little newsroom humor helps revive those holiday spirits

Twas the week before Christmas, and my newsroom wasn’t exactly exuding holiday cheer.

We had planned our annual potluck daylong feast, and the sign-up sheet was full of scrumptious contributions. But only a handful of staffers had signed up for the gift exchange — a telling sign of economic blues.

So we switched plans and declared a moratorium on anything newly purchased. Instead, we decided to stage a “white elephant” gift exchange. And, much to my delight in the search for column fodder, it proved to be a tradition worth sharing.

Since so many newsroom types are the definitive packrats, this game was right up our alley. According to the web site WiseGeek, a white elephant present traditionally is something unusual, somewhat useless or inconvenient. I haven’t met a journalist who can easily throw away anything. Hey, it might come in handy for a photo shoot, or have the name or number of a source suddenly needed, or carry a story that we must read — someday.

Or transform into a white elephant.

So at 4 p.m. Wednesday, we gathered in the back of the newsroom, gifts piled on the table. It looked like your traditional stack under the tree — all sizes, all degrees of wrapping skills represented. And, of course, a good number were wrapped in newsprint.

The rules of the game, according to several Web sites and our own memories: Each person brings one wrapped gift, without identifying themselves or the item. Everyone gets a number — the best is the middle of the pack: The odds are better for you to get a choice gift. The first player opens any one gift from the table. Then the second player can choose a wrapped gift — or steal No. 1’s gift, who would then get another choice. And on it goes.

Our game started out rather politely, to my surprise. Newsroom humor isn’t known for its politeness. If anything, it tends to be quite crass. And the rules of white elephant parties are meant to spark vicious rivalries for the most outrageous gift.

I didn’t have to wait long at all for the ice-breaker.

Law enforcement reporter Robert Napper was one of the first players, and his choice brought chortles of laughter. The seasonal “Oh, Deer” evoked plenty of “Oh, dears” with its tasteless mound of JellyBeans.

Some of the gifts were truly gifts — Mary K. Means announced she wouldn’t get too attached to a beautiful candle-holder. Some of them ruined reputations — sports writer Ryan T. Boyd admitted that he had brought one of the nicer gifts, a collection of sweet-smelling lotions.

Some people were downright fierce in protecting their gift from a marauding thief. Education reporter Sylvia Lim got a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates that everyone immediately tried to confiscate. They forgot — only for a moment — that she is quite skilled in the martial art of capoeira.

Editorial page editor Chris Wille unwrapped my gift — two bamboo torches I’d moved here a decade ago from Texas. (They still sported the moving tag.) What a thrill when metro editor Marc Masferrer made his move — and those torches were the first steal. It doesn’t take much to get us going.

Columnist Vin Mannix, sporting his red Crocs, paraded up to the table for his gift. He rattled his choice for a while before opening it: a game called “The Captain’s Mistress.” And that’s all I can tell you about it — newsroom humor, you know.

Our beloved Angie Monroe, administrative assistant and our “Mom” most days, picked a gift that health writer Donna Wright had dug up from her desk for another co-worker. It evoked a scream and then laughter so hard that the tissue from the Colon Check came in handy for Angie’s tears. Unfazed, Wright took the moment to give us a colonoscopy lecture. Way too much information.

Sports writer John Lembo fessed up to one of the more creatively wrapped: Monty Python & the Holy Grail, bound in Charmin’s finest tissue. East Manatee Editor Jim Jones was, true to form, the most honest, putting a gift card in with his Motown CD collection.

Now, back to the chocolate. Courts reporter Natalie Alund and outdoors writer Nick Walter kept going for the sweets, managing to get a karate-pitched scream from Sylvia. But along with intern Victoria Bekiempis, Lim maneuvered two more trades to secure the chocolate.

The last of the swapping and bartering done, we returned to the grind of deadlines. But for an hour, the challenges of our business were put at bay by silliness and camaraderie.

That’s my wish for each of you: the priceless gift of friendship, love and sharing that will carry us through a peaceful holiday and into a better New Year.

Merry Christmas.

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