Emphasizing “CHANGE” in Gift Exchange

It didn’t begin as an all-out brawl, but in the spirit of the holidays, it became the Gladdens’ most favorite family tradition

By KD Reep


Mom Allison and 2-year-old son Bob take a book break. | Photo by Karen Seagrave

Mom Allison and 2-year-old son Bob take a book break. | Photo by Karen Seagrave

“Holiday Battledome” is how Allison and Adam Gladden and their 2-year-old son, Bob, refer to it. “On Adam’s side of the family, we do a big group gathering, which is held before Christmas,” Allison explains. “It started in Osceola at his grandparents then eventually moved to his aunt’s home in Wilson. Last year, it was held at a younger cousin’s house near Searcy.”

The Gladden Gathering involves a potluck, which always includes tiny egg salad sandwiches among the broad range of nibbles. About 30 people attend the celebration, 10 of whom are children. “There is lots of running in and out of the house and near-misses with the Christmas tree,” Allison says.

The first item of business is to eat. Afterward, the Gladdens get down to serious gift business. “The gathering first started in the late 1950s by Adam’s grandparents, Olen and Bertha,” Allison says. “At the end of each gathering, everyone drew the name of the person for whom they would buy a gift the following year. At some point after Adam’s grandma passed away in the late 1990s, it turned into a Santa exchange.”

This exchange begins when the Gladden kids get toys, which are “generally broken, missing or being used as weapons within 20 minutes,” Allison says. Once the kids are distracted with their gifts, the Gladden adults draw numbers for the gift exchange. “There’s usually one number missing, or two people have the same number.”

“Our particular branch of the family—the Jerry Gladden Family—may be responsible for it turning into Holiday Battledome,” Allison says. Adam attributes this switch to himself, his parents Jerry and Linda, and his brother Michael.

According to Adam, after one year of polite swapping, they engineered a system by which they would pass gifts back and forth to each other to ensure they got what they wanted. After that year, everyone else at the gathering caught on, and the exchange became an all-out competition.

“It’s all in good fun, but that won’t stop someone from literally prying a gift out of your hands or hiding it behind the chair in hopes that you’ll forget about stealing it,” Allison says. “One year, there was nearly a physical altercation over a pink Snuggie. But when the dust settles, and the last gift card has been stolen, the boys end up outside playing football like when they were kids.”

Allison’s side of the family has their own traditions, too. Her favorite tradition is helping her mom decorate the tree, but she notes just how particular her mother, Pam, can be about where the decorations are placed.

“Out of 10 ornaments I put on the tree, maybe one stays where I put it,” Allison says. “She’s so particular, in fact, she had to get a second tree. The first one goes in the living room, and it is always gorgeous. The second one goes in the den, and that’s where all the other ornaments go, like the ones I made as a child. I suspect, though, that if Bob makes her an ornament, it will be front and center on the tree in the living room.”

The Gladdens have used their families’ unique take on the holidays to form their own. After Bob arrived on the scene, Allison and Adam get him an ornament that relates to the Halloween costume he wore that year. The one thing that ties all their traditions together, though, is what Allison and Adam cherish most—laughter.

“I think what makes the holidays special for me is the soundtrack of our gatherings,” Allison says. “From the moment we are all together, we are laughing and telling stories. I have loved getting to know more about Adam’s family in that way, and for Adam, I think it has become even more special since we had Bob. It doesn’t feel like that long ago to him that he was a kid, playing with his cousins, and it’s nice to think that someday Bob will be standing in a kitchen somewhere with his family, maybe having that same feeling.”

This year will be a little bittersweet for the Gladdens, because it will be the first Christmas they will have without Adam’s mom, Linda. “She loved that gift exchange,” Allison says. “But, we’ll remember her in the ornaments, food, stories, jokes and gifts we’ll share. And by ‘share,’ I mean ‘steal.’”