A stick of gum, a can of Spam and a fly swatter probably won’t top most 13-year-olds’ Christmas lists. But it’s these gag gifts that make the holidays extra special for Modern Family star Rico Rodriguez. “Every year we do a white-elephant gift exchange,” says Rico. “Our family is very playful.”
On Christmas Day, Rico and his family—parents Roy and Diane, both 47, and siblings Roy Jr., 27, Ray, 26, and Raini, 18—join about 35 extended family members for lunch at his grandmother’s home in College Station, Texas. There, the entire clan swaps inexpensive presents (there’s a $5 limit for kids and a $10 cap for adults) that keep the room laughing. “Sometimes it’s a hanger or a princess crown,” says Rico. “We like to have fun with our gift giving, even if it happens to be foot powder.”
The quirky Christmas tradition began seven years ago, when Rico’s mom introduced the popular party game to the family because “I like to have everyone interact,” says Diane. “Now everyone looks forward to getting the white-elephant gift.” Not that the real Christmas loot doesn’t come with a few surprises too. “One time I got a gift from my brother Roy Jr., and it was a Victoria’s Secret box,” says Rico. “I said, ‘Are you sure this isn’t for anyone else?’ I open the box, everyone is laughing and I am embarrassed, and it turns out to be a movie I wanted!”
Not all gifts have a punch line: “Every year my dad asks for gloves. But one year we thought, Enough about gloves; we are going to buy something that means something,” says Rico, who bought his father a Rolex watch with his sister Raini, also an actress. “He kind of got teary-eyed. He is such a hard worker. He really deserved it.” Even before he was famous, Rico was always a thoughtful gift giver, says his mom. “Rico would make me a coupon book,” says Diane. “He would put ‘This is good for one kiss or for one hug.'”
Besides the eccentric exchange, Rico cites food as another holiday perk. On Christmas morning “I have a cold glass of milk and then the leftover cookies we left out for Santa,” he says. For dinner, his family switches up the menu each year, running the gamut from a traditional ham to Chinese food. One dish that remains constant? Spanish rice—a nod to the family’s Hispanic roots. “It is so funny, because we will have spaghetti, lasagna—and a dish of Spanish rice,” says Diane. Just another ritual Rico loves about this time of year. “Everything is just better around the holidays,” he says.