An Orchestra For Christmas

by admin on December 23, 2013

I have my own story to tell, one that I got quite a few negative comments about my behaviour regarding the matter. I thought this would be nice to know where everyone stands in this story, thanks to your expert advice.

First, let me tell you a little about the actors in presence. There’s me (Dave), and my partner (Gary). Gary comes from a large family. I am accepted in his family, and enjoy my time spent with the “in-laws”.  Among Gary’s family, there’s his brother, his sister-in-law, and their two children, aged 15 and 18. The parents are quite materialistic people, and that behaviour has left an imprint in their children.

It was a few weeks before the holidays. The problem occurred when we were discussing Christmas presents, in a perfectly casual and practical manner. Gary’s niece went to her purse, retrieved a piece of paper, and made the rounds with it. That was her Christmas wish list. The two things that irked me were : 1) She had written extremely expensive items on her list, mostly musical instruments, like a piano, guitar, set of drums, ukulele, etc. 2) I was the first person she handed the paper to and asked me to pick something to give her. While I make a decent salary, it is not one that can let me afford such luxuries for myself, even less for my partner’s niece. And her list was quite unbalanced, with only two much lesser-priced items, which, unsurprisingly, had already been picked out.

Here’s where, according to a few people, I made the first faux pas. I asked her, in a sarcastic tone of voice, if she wanted to have an orchestra for Christmas? She replied, I guess innocently enough, that she would learn to play whatever instrument she would be offered. Why didn’t I think of a kazoo then, I cannot imagine! Her mother intervened, maybe sensing that her little girl was going a bit overboard with her Christmas shopping.

Fast forward to Christmas. I decided to offer my partner’s niece two things, one of which I hate giving, namely a gift certificate of a decent amount, for a music (CDs and DVDs) store. In my mind, those certificates are way too impersonal, and I very rarely use them. The second thing was a joke, namely a Christmas CD of Brian Setzer Orchestra. As I explained to the family, the reasoning was that she got the orchestra she wanted, in a format that would fit in her room! To her credit, she took the gifts graciously enough. But apparently, that’s when I made the second boo-boo.

A few unrelated people present that day told me that I was being rude and downright nasty to make fun of her by offering her a CD. To me, it was less being rude and more about giving, in jest, a lesson in good manners. Guess I blew it.

What do you think? And if I am the offender, what could have been a good way to handle the matter? 0610-11

I’m aghast her parents thought their daughter’s blatant gift demands were not worthy of putting the kibosh on.    Had I been in your shoes, the sucking in of my breath may have created a serious air vacuum in the room.     I may have handed the wish list back saying, “I’m so sorry.  I’m not Santa Claus and fulfilling this wish list is above my pay grade.”    Or a simple, “I’m so sorry, I cannot accommodate your requests.”

She asked for a piano but unless she specified which kind, I might have bought her a $30 kalimba, otherwise known as a “thumb piano”.

The only possible error was in explaining to people why your gift was a joke.   Her greed and presumptions doesn’t give you carte blanche to embarrass her on Christmas Day in front of everyone.   You could have given her the Brian Setzer Orchestra CD but it would have been a private joke between you and her with others merely assuming to know why you gave it.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Kylynara December 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I think possibly both the OP and the niece were out of line here. The girl’s parents have clearly not done something right over the years, but I don’t think they have a specific point of blame here.

He’s not clear which niece had the list, but even the 15 year old should know musical instruments are expensive and to have included cheaper things on the list. The niece really stepped out of line by demanding he tell her on the spot, which item he was choosing. I agree this turns a wish list into a demand list.

I don’t fault the parents for not immediately intervening, because they have no business hovering over a 15 year old, let alone the 18 year old, to watch every aspect of their behavior like a hawk. It sounds like they did intervene when they realized what was happening and I can’t blame them for not realizing it immediately. As I said clearly they did something wrong or failed to do something right over the years that the girl at 15 (or 18) thought this was acceptable.

The OP, from the sound of things, is basically an uncle-in-law (regardless of what the law says in his area), and I think a relatively new one. I don’t get the impression that this is his 1st Christmas with the family, but maybe 2nd or 3rd. I don’t think he’s completely out of line to want to teach the niece an important lesson that her parents have failed to do. Without knowing the family’s usual dynamic (or his) it’s hard to say how he came across. In my family, we tease each other mercilessly. We are sarcastic and we are smart alecs and gag gifts are an absolute load of fun. That said my cousin married a girl who had not come from that background and she thought we all hated her for about the first year they were married. Suddenly she noticed we all made fun of each other too and that was just how we did things. So with that perspective I can see if the OP came from a background like mine and the partner’s family wasn’t that way this could easily come across wrong. Same if he doesn’t normally interact with the niece in joking sarcastic way. I do think explaining the joke to the whole family may have been over the line, especially as it seems the real purpose was more of a lesson disguised as a joke. It’s entirely possible his acting wasn’t good enough to hide the real purpose. Sharing the backstory to a gag gift isn’t rude, but making a gag gift a public lesson is.

Also, a gift card to a music store that doesn’t sell instruments, instrument accessories, sheet music, lessons, etc. seems a bit passive aggressive under the circumstances. Not only am I not buying the demanded musical instrument, I’m going to give you money that you can’t put towards it. Yes CDs are still musical, but a gift card to support her new hobby in a fashion you could afford would have been kinder.


NostalgicGal December 23, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Back when, when books were a precious gift, and I was an avid reader; (we are talking a THICK paperback was $2-3 and I do mean break the floor for $3) I was given books by the family one year, and I cried because I had 5 of the 8 I was given already. What a missed opportunity there… to get ones I already had… (okay I was 8). My godmother felt bad about it, she’d given me a set of 4 and I had them all… so she asked my mother to ask me, the next year; to make a list.

Understand I exchanged gifts with cousins, my godparents, and my grandparents as well, and I was taught to GIVE as well as get. I produced the list, with almost a hundred books that I didn’t have and DID want; and the rest of the list; approximately 300 items total. A number of items were under a dollar or around a dollar, a few were high ticket (say $100); and. I didn’t expect to get that whole list. Maybe 20-30 items tops, and no way all the big items. I could hope for one big item and the rest small. The list had to be large so I couldn’t guess what I got, the buyer had a choice. I made this list in early October, and my mother started to pass it around. She swore Santa would get a copy too (he was still very much real to this kid then!)

I DID NOT hand it to the relatives, it went to my mother, who dealt with it from there. Christmas, every item I did get came off my list including several paperbacks, which made me very very happy. I continued to produce that list every year until I went to college. My birthday isn’t much after Christmas so it usually sufficed to deal with my gift needs then too; if I had a few additions they were penciled in right after Christmas.

No I wasn’t the only one to make gift lists; some of my younger cousins when they got to the age of writing also made their lists; and it would be talk with their mom out of earshot on what they wanted, what they could really use; or a suggestion or suggestions on what to get them. AS things were purchased they’d get crossed off, so say for the one cousin, their mom would say, oh we’re getting them the X, grandparents the Y and so and so Z, so I know they’d really like the W (already knowing what I’d suggested I’d spend)and agree thus, if I could find a W that is what they’d get… and a couple of alts.. then tell their mom I didn’t find the W but I got the T instead. Okay.

The OP was put in a bad spot and didn’t exactly make it better. A Christmas List is okay but it depends on how it’s used. Had the niece made a list and handed it to say her mom; then those wanting to buy niece gifts could inquire… (and for a high ticket item then coordinate on assisting with it if say a Piano was in the works) The sarcasmizer needed to be off when niece first presented the list.. and later, the CD at best should have been kept as a private joke. Putting her uncle on the spot like that wasn’t good. I’d say the parents need to be embarrassed.


ValB December 23, 2013 at 9:45 pm

I don’t get why everyone is insisting on calling this girl a “child”. 15 is way overdue to have someone point out that you are being a gimme pig. Evidently her immediate family thinks her behavior is kinda cute and has given her free reign, probably because she’s still considered the baby of the family. Only when someone rightfully pointed out that her demands were coming off as greedy did her her mother step in.
My feeling is that she wasn’t all that serious about learning an instrument. Clearly, for her, the only gifts worth getting were expensive ones, and she probably already has a laptop, cell phone, tablet, tv…. Whats left? Hey, a ukelele would be fun to show off! Imagine if she had actually gotten 3 different instruments, my bet is that each one would’ve had an afternoon try-out for novelty purposes before finding itself in a corner when she found out that learning to play an instrument well takes a lot of work and dedication.
I don’t think the cd and joke comment were all that rude. I could see maybe your partner telling you later on that it was a bit sharp, but for several people to call you rude is what makes me think that this girl is still being coddled as the baby of the family. You didn’t make fun of her for her looks/weight/intelligence or any other aspect that is out of her control. As a young lady and soon-to-be adult, she has FULL control of her greedy tendencies, and may have a good shot at becoming a decent adult if people who actually care about her (like i think the OP does) occasionally steer her in the right direction. Better you than her future boss when she doesn’t get the raise or vacation time she wants, or the future university professor that gives her a low grade. Greed can have many faces, and none of them are cute.


Kimstu December 23, 2013 at 11:50 pm

@OP: “It was a few weeks before the holidays. The problem occurred when we were discussing Christmas presents, in a perfectly casual and practical manner. Gary’s niece went to her purse, retrieved a piece of paper, and made the rounds with it. That was her Christmas wish list.”

@OP, what do you mean by “discussing Christmas presents in a perfectly casual and practical manner”? Were you and your partner and his family actually exchanging ideas and suggestions for presents you would give one another? If so, I really don’t see what’s so dreadful about his niece showing everyone her written wish list instead of just giving her suggestions verbally like the rest of you. Yes, her focus on big-ticket items was thoughtless and her proposal that everybody should sign up for their selected gift on the spot was tactless, but simply handing around the wish list wasn’t rude.

Of course, if what you mean by “discussing Christmas presents” is just that you were all having a nice conversation about the concept of Christmas presents in general and Gary’s niece spontaneously decided to make it an excuse to display her own gimme-piggery, then I quite agree that her behavior was appalling. But if the conversation was ALREADY focused on the family’s gift-exchange suggestions, then that changes the situation, and I think you should have been clearer about that in telling your story.


AED December 24, 2013 at 1:06 am

DanaJ, actually, the store where I took lessons recommended the keyboard when I was thinking of taking lessons emailed me the link and all. So, I know several very reputable teachers who discourage new students from getting anything more expensive than $150-200 for the first year or so. Too many kids ( and adults) give up before then.


lakey December 24, 2013 at 1:25 am

I guess I’m old fashioned, but I’m not a fan of people, including children, passing out lists of what they want others to give them as gifts. To me the fun of opening gifts is the surprise. I also feel that a gift as expensive as a musical instrument would usually be given by the parents.

What I’ve done in my family is, if the recipient is a brother or sister, I pretty much know them well enough to figure out what they would like. For nieces and nephews I would ask their mother for some ideas. The suggestions usually ended up being moderately priced things like, sports logo clothing or games for gaming equipment.


hakayama December 24, 2013 at 1:28 am

Dear David,
You “done good” as they say in this (red)neck of the woods here. Actually, VERY good 😉 … And you need to know why, so please consider the following, not presented sequentially or in any particular order of importance:
# A 15 yr. old is not a “child”, but a “young adult” according to library definitions. Legal stuff is something else. Let’s take it that the girl in question is the younger of the siblings. She would probably be mortified if anyone referred to her as a child within her hearing, but given her lack of sophistication (and information), in some areas she seems to be behind her peers.
Her “materialistic” parents apparently did not do too good a job, even in the “materialistic” field since she has no concept of what things cost, and/or what people could afford.
# Teenagers have a very keen sense of justice. They also possess a wonderful sense of humor*… which unfortunately, too often seems to vanish when adulthood is reached. Too many grown ups become stuffed shirts, and carry on as if they had swallowed a broomstick. **
# Ossified spirits do not tolerate any playfulness, joking, ribbing, “razzing”…
# The girl “done good” too.
# It is the grown ups that just “did not get it” in their rigidity. Not only the ones in the story, but sadly enough, too many in the commentariat.***
# Too many people need to have jokes explained to them. What would they say to P.D.Q. Bach? And
can you imagine the furor, the scandalized moral indignation at the Ballets du Trockadero?
# David: I think that you might consider giving wide berth to the humorless crawlers.
The underprivileged (albeit entitled) teenager will just need to find out on her own the vicisitudes involved in learning to play an instrument at what seems to be a rather late start… BUT, I suspect that SHE may become your ally in the future…

* I speak from a position of great authority 😉 as a former high school teacher. Daily dealings with 200 plus young people allowed me to observe them closely.

** Setting: rather crowded elevator on the way to the swearing in ceremony for new US citizens. Someone cracked a joke. People giggled and smiled. Upon exiting at the proper floor with my [drum roll 😉 ] “American aunt”, I was sternly told by her that “one does not react” to such things in public.

*** A fitting and nicely descriptive neologism I learned from just reading another interactive website. One where bright, witty, playful adults seem to congregate, seemingly with the purpose of having fun with words and ideas…


mark December 24, 2013 at 2:15 am

I think you did just fine OP. While I wasnt there to see your delivery, it sounds like some of your partner`s family are humor impaired. I think your joke was actually pretty funny. And if this young woman thought that you were going to actually buy her a piano or something in that price range, well a small dose of reality is good for her.

You were in a no win situation, who actually is ready at the drop of a hat to deal with such an audacious request in a forum like that. I don’t think I would have come up with anything gracious to a request like this. If indeed there was a gracious way to handle this. In fact a little/lot of sarcasm is probably the best response to this sort of request by a young adult.


denise miller December 24, 2013 at 11:36 am

I’m willing to bet the niece or her family would tell the story in an entirely different manner.

You’ve already decided that the entire family has self-entitlement issues and are materialistic. The niece stated she would love to learn an instrument, any she was given.

I’m willing to bet the chain of events was a little different, the girl had a list of instruments she would like to try and learn and when asked what she wanted for Christmas (likely by someone else in the room) she said she wanted to learn an instrument and brought out her list. The fact that she not only stated that she would love to learn anything AND that her mother stepped in shows me that you took it the wrong way. Then, you crossed the line with a mean spirited joke, at Christmas.

I’m also willing to bet you do not fit in with the family all that well.


Erin December 24, 2013 at 11:48 am

Basically she was rude so you were rude to her later in a passive aggressive way. Yeah, I see why people were upset. It doesn’t give her a pass, but it doesn’t say much for you either. You don’t have to like the girl but you don’t need to embarrass her on Christmas.

“It’s just a joke” is code for “I will not admit that I hurt your feelings, so I’m going to blame you for having feelings to hurt.”


just4kicks December 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm

We have a teenage relative who would pull a similar stunt every year after thanksgiving dinner. One year when our finances were very tight, and my husband and I were losing sleep over how we were going to presents for our own kids, I lost my cool. I didn’t yell at her or anything like that, but when her TWO page list landed in my lap I looked it over quickly and as I handed it back to her said with a big smile, “Well, honey….I’d like a million dollars!!! Guess we are BOTH going to be disappointed Christmas morning!”
Yes, I know…..I feel the flames licking at my toes….. but her parents finally put an end to the gift grab.
No wish lists were passed my way the following year.


Anonymous December 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm

@Hakayama–Actually, the teenage years aren’t THAT late to start playing a musical instrument. I started playing the clarinet at fourteen, which is just at the upper end of the “recommended” starting age for a single-reed woodwind instrument, and I caught on fairly quickly. Most people say that middle school/early high school age is a good time to begin, but even that’s not a one-size-fits-all rule. For example, one of the most difficult private clarinet students I’ve ever worked with, was a twelve-year-old girl who was small for her age, and lacked the hand strength to comfortably hold a clarinet, but had been pushed into starting when she was ten. From what I gathered, she didn’t enjoy playing, because it hurt. Her parents also didn’t want to spend money on their daughter’s musical education (beyond lessons), so they made her pay for her own music and accessories with her allowance. So, the obvious solution would have been to ask her parents to get their daughter a neck strap, but that was easier said than done. Sometimes I wonder if she still plays, or if she’s been sidelined with tendonitis, which is more common for university-and-professional-level musicians. For double reeds, the recommended starting age is a bit later (fourteen or so), and for large double-reed instruments (like the bassoon or the contra bassoon), it’s somewhere between fourteen and sixteen. String bass obviously has a height and strength requirement, which is why you don’t see any preschool string bass players in the Suzuki string classes. The guitar is another instrument that you can’t start playing as a small child, because again, size requirement, and a lot people start playing it as teenagers, and do fine. So, my point is, fifteen isn’t too late an age to start playing a musical instrument. It’s a bit late to be learning basic manners, but it’s probably better late than never. Oh, and another thing I forgot to mention–if another family member plays a certain instrument, then the other family members could chip in to buy Niece that instrument, and the musical family member could teach Niece to play it, if distance isn’t a problem.


Library Dvia December 26, 2013 at 9:09 am

Anon, that’s awful. So her parents not only FORCED


Library Diva December 26, 2013 at 9:24 am

Agggh…not enough coffee this morning. What I meant to say was that not only did this girl’s parents FORCE her to take clarinet — which she didn’t even like — but they also made her spend her allowance on music and accessories? I can’t think of a better way to make a child hate music to the point where they won’t even listen to it.

Anyway, I think that OP was a little snarky in his gift. As admin said, there’s no reason to embarrass someone on Christmas morning like that. However, there’s no doubt that the niece was being wildly unrealistic. As one who grew up playing a bunch of different instruments and has worked in the music industry, I hope that her parents did manage to hear the dreams and desires behind this list and get OP’s niece some musical lessons on an instrument of her choosing, although I agree with not buying an instrument right away.

You asked what you could have done differently. I would have suggested talking to her parents to find out what they were doing to encourage their daughter’s musical ambitions, and then done something to support it. Others have suggested a gift certificate to a store that sells sheet music and accessories, and I think that’s a fine idea. You could have also simply fallen back on that old uncle standby, money in a card, if her parents indicated that this was clearly just a passing fancy. In the future, I also suggest curbing the lesson-teaching impulse in gift-giving. That’s never a good look for anyone, not matter how richly the recipient needs it.

All this being said, the niece is now old enough that not everything she does is cute anymore. A little kid requesting a castle and a pony and a basket of kittens and a rocket and a racecar is cute. It stops being cute when the kid grows up to be a teen and the list doesn’t change, nor does the earnestness behind it. It was pretty greedy of her to circulate such a list and stand over people while they chose off it. At some point, this behavior will have repercussions, so her parents shouldn’t be that surprised that the day has come.


Anonymous December 26, 2013 at 11:44 am

Library Diva–It’s complicated. This girl wasn’t even my student; she was taking lessons with a friend of mine, who’d pretty much hit a wall with her, so he asked me to help him. He’s much older than me (I’d say mid-late forties), and while he’s had more experience than me with music, well, he’d had NO experience being a teenage girl, and I’d had seven years of it. So, from what I gathered from the lesson or two that I helped him with, this girl sort of liked playing the clarinet, but she only wanted to play Disney music and other things of that ilk, and she’d be constantly “forgetting” or “losing” her method books, technical study books, and “boring” music that’s designed to teach/reinforce specific skills. Her parents had started her on the clarinet when she was ten, which, as I said before, is a bit early, especially for a kid who’s small for their age, as she was. I don’t know if she was with her parents when they went to the music store to buy/rent the clarinet, but the person working there should have steered them towards a different instrument, or told them to wait a few years if the clarinet was their first choice, but the people at the music store in my city are pretty incompetent about anything woodwind-related, so maybe they didn’t know. Anyway, these same parents also had their daughter in advanced/gifted classes at school, and from what I gathered, they were very much the “Tiger Parents” who pushed their child to succeed, early and aggressively. I agree that they were probably setting their daughter up to hate music, but if her regular teacher couldn’t fix the larger situation, then I sure as heck couldn’t. I suggested to him that he find her a pretty folder to keep her music organized, and to talk to her parents about the neck strap (as a health and safety issue, if nothing else), but that his student’s resistance was a symptom of a bigger problem that I couldn’t fix.


Jen December 26, 2013 at 11:44 am

@Denise Miller, I see part of your point, but you missed the fact that the niece went to the OP first with the list. If another relative had asked what she wanted and so she pulled out the list in response, why did she show it to OP first and not to the relative who asked?

To the OP, I think it all depends on the tone and delivery of the joke. It could have either been said snarky and b*!chy (we are laughing AT you) or with a gracious sense of good humor (we are laughing WITH you). Since I didn’t witness it, it’s hard to judge. I’m not sure how long ago this occurred, but if it wasn’t too long ago and if it seems the niece’s feelings were hurt, you could explain to her privately that you meant it as a joke, but it unfortunately feel flat and you didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.

Also, I agree with some of the other posters that a gift card to a music supply store would have been more appropriate for someone who wants to learn a musical instrument.


JGM1764 December 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Well, two wrongs don’t make a right. I probably would have told her point blank that I wouldn’t be buying her an instrument and then bought her some sheet music or a book about playing techniques for one of her desired instruments.


AngiePange December 31, 2013 at 6:39 am

This is how I would have handled this: Told her “that’s a lovely wish list, but I prefer for the presents I give to be a surprise”.
I don’t necessarily think you were wrong. Personally, I don’t even think explaining your joke was THAT bad of an “etiquette” slip. It could be construed as a tad mean spirited, sure – the girl is only 15, and maybe she just doesn’t get the inappropriateness of her behaviour, but honestly, I think the joke was a quite funny – I suppose it all depends on HOW you explained the joke. It sounds to me like she took it in the right way, and therefore no harm, no foul. In my family, we don’t do “wish lists”. We used to write letters to Santa, but we only got one or two items off that and were jolly grateful for our presents.


L.J. January 1, 2014 at 10:19 am

It’s often possibly to get a used piano very inexpensively, sometimes even for free! Google “used piano free” and you’ll find some sites that may connect you with a person or organization in your area who will give away a piano to anyone who is willing to move it. Also check Goodwill and other thrift shops, of course.


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