Sonya Gee’s memories of gift-giving on Christmas Day aren’t very comfortable.
Her extended family of 20 would sit in a circle, and over the next four hours they’d go around opening presents one by one, with everyone watching as each gift was opened. Under the scrutiny of the entire family, the pressure would mount to act surprised, happy and grateful. Each gift was cheered for as it was unveiled and the receiver would squeal with delight.
I’m terrible at opening presents in front of people, Sonya says. I’m worried that that my lack of a poker face will give me away.
But now, many years later, the trauma of Christmases past and the terror of inappropriate gifts received without the armour of a decent poker face have been transformed to produce a peculiar experiment…
Every week since about two years ago, somewhere in her travels, Sonya deposits one beautifully decorated matchbox with a gift inside it. After making the drop, she blogs about the matchbox’s contents and whereabouts, and hopes the finder might notice the blog address on the box and write to her about their find.
Her matchboxes’ locations have varied as much as their contents: café tables, empty bus seats, ATMs, street-side letterboxes, tree trunks, a train seat in Paris, art galleries and holes in the wall.
It was a joke, a distraction, a challenge, Sonya says of the first boxes. I just wanted to surprise my friends with ridiculous gifts, and matchboxes seemed like readymade gift boxes… I think I saw one on the footpath one day and started thinking about how I could use them.
Over 100 boxes later (one full of potting mix with a sweet pea growing out of it, another featuring vintage Redheads images, another in a little tuxedo…) and still only five people have ever written in to say they found one.
When so few people responded, Sonya was sad initially. But gradually she started to receive what is now a huge amount of positive feedback about her matchboxes and her blog about them from people who hadn’t found one. It led to two exhibitions, matchbox auctions, a hand-painted toadstool pendant and press coverage from different corners of the world. Sonya reckons she realised that it was not just about the physical gift itself but the idea of giving and of chance that appealed so much to people.
My favourite part is being anonymous, she says, adding that the publicity her project gets doesn’t detract from the anonymity at its centre. It’s anonymous in the sense that I hope not to get caught leaving a box ever and the locations of the boxes are never disclosed until after they are left.
She has been caught once, though.
A zealous waiter chased her down the street yelling, Miss! You’ve forgotten something! She yelled back that it was his to keep and then ran down a side-street and hid.
His wasn’t the reaction she normally wants people to have when they find her tiny delights.
I hope they go through a chain of reactions, starting with curiosity and mild bewilderment, she says, …seeing it and thinking, What is this? Is this for me?’ I kind of imagine the finder looking around to see if it’s a joke. And then on opening the box they’d get that childlike feeling you get when you discover something new.
That something new could be a tiny ten-pin bowling set, a pair of small sugar flowers, a mushroom in a field of grass, a baby harmonica, a babushka doll, emergency sewing kits, Lego men or a bubble blower.
The boxes are still being left in and around Sydney, Sonya says, every week, and they’re getting more ridiculous as time passes. I just covered an entire box in hundreds and thousands and cut up tiny sparklers for its contents, ready for drop-off next time I leave the house.
At this point in its evolution, the project has become more about the idea of giving, encouraging discovery and rewarding curiosity than about the artefacts themselves.
I’ve previously thought it’s a silly thing to do. Now I think it’s a silly thing to do that other people really appreciate and understand, she says.
And if she were to ever find such a quaint and thoughtful gift in a hole in the wall herself? I’m a big squealer so I’d probably start cheering! I’d be so happy! (There’s that crap Christmas poker face she mentioned.)
Actually Sonya has started to get little presents from people who want to contribute - presents which tend to arrive quietly, almost secretly. Tiny harmonicas are slid across the table, care-packages of small things arrive in the mail, some hand-painted toadstool pendants appear (wrapped in a tissue), and a lama finger-puppet is placed firmly in her hand.
These things, as Sonya says, are all given in faith that they will be passed on…to no one in particular. The best kind of philanthropy.