Trim your tree with an Ebola stuffed toy in the shape of the spindly virus, from the gift shop at the National Institutes of Health.
Buy your loved one the perfect present for that decadent holiday getaway, a plush beach towel embroidered with the emblem of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Or a National Security Agency coffee mug decorated with encrypted messages. They decipher themselves when warm liquid is poured into the cup.
And for the would-be space traveler: NASA’s freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream. A slab of the dehydrated treat has a three-year shelf life, some dusty flavors and a buttery aftertaste.
Welcome to the vast world of federal agency gift shops, where you can fill your cart with whimsy and irony.
A festive federal shopping list could look something like this: an inflatable NASA astronaut; sheets of $2 bills from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; a gavel-shaped pencil with a two-headed eraser from the Supreme Court; and a hand-cranked weather radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Because if the grid goes down, “this will keep giving you tornado and flooding warnings,” chuckled Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman with the National Weather Service, who has bought at least six holiday radios over the years for his relatives. “It’s very Washington. But it’s also just very cool.”
The top seller at the Drug Enforcement Administration are “chum bags,” black pouches filled with collectable office coins from the agency’s offices around the world. The Afghan coin, for instance, is embossed with opium poppies and a sniper.
At times, this swag is used to thank local law enforcement partners. A DEA agent showed up at the Arlington store on a recent afternoon to buy Christmas chum bags for several members of the British special forces, who, he said “saved my hide, in Afghanistan.”
And then there’s the shop inside the Central Intelligence Agency, which sells an assortment of presents, including cuff links, golf balls and onesies for infants, all emblazoned with the CIA emblem. The onesies are made in Pakistan, which happens to be the primary location of the agency’s counterterrorism drone strikes.
The NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered in Atlanta, are supplied by a company called Giant Microbes, which sells a “stocking box of ornaments.” It includes penicillin, a blue stuffed toy that looks like a squid; the salmonella bacterium, a log with red flowing strings; and a stuffed red-blood cell. A company called Cafepress.com also sells an Ebola ornament online.
These playful expressions of pestilence are rooted in science, which is at the heart of the agencies’ missions, said Randy Schools, who heads the NIH’s five gift shops. He said the gifts are a great way to capture in a single toy what his agency is all about.
They often reflect the latest health challenges. Bedbugs, rendered as flat, bright-red creatures with antennae, were big a few years back. So was the black-caped “superbug” a takeoff on the antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria, which has been spreading with alarming speed. And this year, there’s been a run on Ebola.
“It’s never too soon to share an important health message. It’s empowering to talk about what’s scary,” said Drew Oliver, chief executive of Giant Microbes. “Plus, it works so perfectly for Washington agencies.”
While there is an abundance of prosaic government stocking stuffers — key chains, pens, golf balls, mouse pads — there are also classier collectibles.
The Supreme Court, for instance, produces a new Christmas ornament annually. This year’s is a three-dimensional rendering of the court building, silver-plated with white accents. “The curved columns beautifully reflect the light,” reads the description.
It’s for sale alongside the book “Yoga for Lawyers,” which contains pictures of poses for “the chronically stressed and hunched over,” and the board game “Lawsuit!”
Jim Lumsden works with a company that supplies shops at several national security and law enforcement agencies, where there are limits not only on who can get into those stores — often only employees or guests with an escort — but on what is tasteful to sell.
The DEA gift shop, at agency headquarters across from the Pentagon City Mall, won’t sell cigarette lighters or shot glasses, although those items are staples of other federal gift shops.
“That would be bad. We have to be careful with that sort of stuff,” said Lumsden, a designer with API, which makes and supplies gift items.
That agency’s store, however, does sell a onesie that reads, “DEA: I’m gonna bust the bad guys, right after my nap.” And bumper stickers that say, “Keep off the grass,” with a red line through a marijuana leaf.
Lumsden, whose company also supplies some of the CIA merchandise, was told that items there have to pass what’s called The Washington Post test. “So there shouldn’t be anything in the stores that would be really embarrassing on the front page,” he said.
The FBI gift shop sold glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts with the bureau logo for a while. “Those were on the edge,” he said.
On a recent morning, an NSA employee and his wife rolled into the busy parking lot at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., their Honda’s trunk cleared out and their holiday gift list dancing in their heads.
This agency is one of the government’s most secretive. The couple, who asked to be identified only as Michelle and Bo, said their nieces and nephews may never know what their uncle does — it’s classified — but they can enjoy a “spy secret message kit,” which allows users to send morse code and create invisible messages with “secret markers.”
“The irony of making something secret is you make it important. And that’s what we are going for here with this shopping,” Bo said. “The gifts really bring the magic and the mystery.”
Most of the federal gift shops are nonprofit. Some help pay for agency museums or employee gyms and other recreation. Some fund charities. Revenue from the NIH shops, for instance, partly goes to finance fun programs for kids with cancer.
And after Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) went Christmas shopping in 2011 and was angered to discover so many government products made in China, including Washington Monument magnets, there has been a move to sell more American products in agency gift shops.
But some agencies also have safety concerns. After the Sept. 11 attacks, shops have been more careful about selling clothing with the insignia of national security and law enforcement agencies, officials said. These items could turn the wearer into a target of anti-American violence.
At the NSA gift shop, near the National Cryptologic Museum, store manager Robin Bunch said she often thinks about this. So she typed up a warning and taped it to the wall: “Although owning an NSA logo item does not necessarily imply that one is an NSA employee, it can raise a level of interest. Consider for example where the item will be worn/used and take into account local threat conditions.”