My brother-in-law J. had, among his collection of tin toys and keepsakes, a can of… peanut brittle. Uh-huh. A faded, peeling, scratched-up old can, smelling strongly of basement mildew, promisingly labelled peanut brittle.
But when you opened it, did you find delicious peanut brittle, as the label indicated? You did not! When you twisted and pried the stubborn lid from the tarnished old can, HORRIBLE SNAKES would fly forth!
And I mean “HORRIBLE SNAKES”: musty old fabric, worn away with time, here and there the sharp spikes of the spring ends poking through. Even if they didn’t scratch you when they sprang out, trying to cram them back into the can was a tetanus-tempting chore.
So one Christmas, I bought J. a new set of Snakes in a Can. (Note: I couldn’t find peanut brittle, but apparently the Snake Nut Can company is still doing booming business; I was able to find one immediately at the toy shop across the street from my apartment.)
When I wrapped my Christmas gifts at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, J.’s daughter A., then not quite six, wandered in to help. I showed her my gift for her dad and asked her advice: should I leave the can in its packaging so J. would know it was a joke can? OR… should I remove the wrapping, so he would think it was a can of fancy nuts?
A.’s little mouth twisted in delight. Unwrap it! Take it out of its packaging! Let him open it all unawares! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS! He’ll never know! Y’know why? Because it doesn’t say peanut brittle!
She even helped me take off the cardboard-and-plastic packaging and wrap up the tin of FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS prettily in tissue and ribbon. When we exchanged gifts the next day, I said “Oh, J., I have something for you,” and asked A. to fetch it from under the tree and deliver it, which she did, snickering and flicking thrilled, guilty looks at me the entire time.
J. put on his best poker face, accepting the present and unwrapping it nonchalantly, taking his sweet time and sparing me only one keen glance as he unwound the ribbon.
A. stood by, hopping from foot to foot, choking back her guffaws. Once, she almost fell over.
And then: “Oh! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS. Mmm. I love these, thanks. I think I’ll open them… right now.” J. leaned in toward his little daughter.
She took a huuuuuuge step back.
J. and I both almost burst out laughing. But we managed to hold it in…
… unlike the snakes, which sprang out into the room as A. and J. and everyone else started laughing. “Oh, snakes! YOU GOT ME!”
It was a good Christmas.