You can't have Christmas without it. Apparently.
Written and illustrated by Vivian Hansen de los Ríos
I was the fortunate recipient of glass fish. We were spending one unusual Christmas at my aunt's house with our large extended family and their tangle of children. At one point in the frenzy of destroying paper to open our gifts, I gave up attempting to slowly read my entire name and just started ripping at the first gift that I saw addressed to "R-" (the first letter of my middle name). As it happens, my dad's name also starts with an "R," and I immediately asked my grandfather in confusion to explain what I'd opened.
"Looks like some type of ball bearings," he said slowly. That didn't help me understand things any better. He finally held it up and asked around the room. I stood there, waiting impatiently to find the root of the confusion as the other kids were massacring the carefully wrapped boxes, until someone finally realized what had happened. They laughed and told me that I needed to read my whole name before opening things.
I jumped back under the tree and was thankfully handed a gift by my older brother, who could read faster than me. I flung the paper away and found a beautiful little clear box full of shimmering green and blue beads in the shape of fish. The bead set was quirkily called "Fish Fetish" and included some cord to make bracelets and necklaces with. Given to me by my great aunt, it was one of those unexpected yet much appreciated gifts, despite how unusual it sounds on paper. (Really, though. When I returned to school after the holidays, we were asked to write about something we got for Christmas. I wrote that I got a "Fish Fetish." I wonder sometimes if that school teacher still prays for me.)
There really was something magic about the way the beads glittered, and I kept them hidden away as a special treasure. In fact, nearly 25 years later, I still have two of those glass fish beads in my jewelry box. My aunt was the unfortunate recipient of the brass fish. Despite her best efforts, she had not won over the affection of her mother-in-law in the early years of her marriage. But as it was Christmas and at least one gift felt obligatory, the in-law chose a gift for her as a bit of a "Merry Christmas, I guess": a gaudy necklace with cheap beads and a huge, ugly brass fish pendant. The holidays don't always bring out the "nice" in people, I suppose. My aunt felt the sting of the obvious snub, but her siblings rallied and turned it into a joke instead (you laugh or you cry, right?).
Every year since then, they find intentionally terrible gifts to give each other: a very poorly painted vintage clown doll, a velvet clock depicting religious figures decorated in fiber optic lights, a still-life painting of household cleaning products, a bizarre ceramic figurine of a little boy sitting on a toilet, and other such nonsense. The worse, the better. They are dubbed "brass fish," and are gleefully exchanged each year with much groaning and eye rolling. In fact, the tradition has gained such notoriety that other members of the family and some friends are involved too, many of them scouring thrift shops throughout the year to find the most perfectly awful gifts to give. The worst (best) ones are usually awarded with tears of laughter from everyone witnessing it being opened.
Glass fish, brass fish, it really is the thought that counts. I'm just thankful for the glass fish in my life.