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How Do You Feel about Secret Santas?

I know a lot of people like Secret Santas.  They must because they often suggest doing this type of gift exchange.  But one of the joys of working from home is that I haven’t been asked to take part in a Secret Santa gift exchange it many many years.

Which is a good thing.

Because I really dislike them.  My friend and I were just commiserating via email about this.

secret_santaImage: Wes Bryant via Flickr

The first one I participated in perfectly illustrates exactly why I dislike them.  I was on a trip with a bunch of people I had never met before, and before we left to travel, someone suggested a Secret Santa gift exchange.  Actually, it was a Gamad v’Anak gift exchange — that’s what we call it in Hebrew.  It means “Elves and Giants;” like those little elves that sneak into the cobbler’s shop and finish the shoes sort of elves (not the Legolas kind).  You’re supposed to be kind to the person for the duration of the activity in addition to buying them things.  So it’s a little bit like Secret Santa on steroids.

Anyway, the point is that I was given the name of a person that I had never met before and was told to buy them gifts.

My understanding of gifts is that you purchase something for the other person that they would either want or need.  Gift giving shows how well you know a person that you would choose an item that fits them well.  Sometimes you miss with a gift, but the person at least understands why the gift was purchased; the thought process behind the item.

The gifts I received that trip were edible items that I could not eat (due to certain ingredients) and a pair of dangling earrings that I could not wear (due to the fact that I don’t have my ears pierced).  I still have the earrings.  I still don’t know what to do with them.  There is no one I know that fit this earring style that also wears earrings.  But I don’t want to throw them out because that feels odd too — someone gave them to me as a gift.  They’ve remained in a jewelry box as clutter for 25 years.

Yes, I know I need to just toss them.  But that’s not the point.

I also didn’t know what to buy my person because I didn’t know her at all.  Does she like jewelry?  How the hell should I know?  And if she’s a jewelry person, what sort of jewelry?  I personally wear rings and necklaces and nothing else.  Buy me a pin or bracelet and it will never be worn.  How do I know what this woman’s feelings are on wrist adornment?  Do I buy her something edible?  Chocolate seems like a safe bet.  But what if she’s allergic to chocolate?  Or hates chocolate?  What if her mother was killed in a Nestlé chocolate factory and now I’m buying her Nestlé’s chocolate?  What if I ruin her day with my gift?

Gift cards are a safer bet since it allows the person to choose what they want (though I’ve also received gift cards for places I would never shop or eat, and they go unused — what a waste), though they seem to be anathema as an exchange gift.  Thank you for the teacher — absolutely.  As a Secret Santa gift, it seems like some people don’t mind receiving them and others cry out that they don’t “count” because they’re so impersonal.  You can’t unwrap it and immediately enjoy it as you would a cranberry-scented candle*.  You open it up and your gift is something in the future.  Down the road.  An amorphous gift that you’ll pick out when you drive to the store.  See, not quite the same thing.

I am not a fan of Secret Santas because it combines my fear of waste with my generalized anxiety about relationships.  On the waste end, I hate money wasted, hate receiving or giving clutter, and generally feel that most Secret Santa gifts become something the person neither wants nor needs.  On the anxiety end, I am often worried that I’m not doing “enough” within my relationships, that my actions aren’t speaking as loud as my words, and that my gift will make the person think that I don’t really know them.

Secret Santa gifts are almost always a letdown, and I don’t want to be the one who caused someone else’s letdown.  They’re even worse when someone around you receives something they actually are happy with but your gift is terrible.

I’m aware that this is just me.  I would rather receive no gift than a gift because someone feels they need to buy me a gift.  And I’d like a gift card to a bookstore over most tangible items because I like to choose my own books and they’re really the only thing I always know I want.

I guess I would like to hear how other people feel about this sort of gift exchange and why they like (or don’t like) it.  Have you ever gotten a really great Secret Santa gift?  What was it?

Lest I sound like a Grinch, I would totally be down for a candy cane-inspired snack party.  Or a really cool ornament showcase.  Or a let’s-string-Christmas-lights-together party.  Or a Love Actually watch-a-thon.  Just not Secret Santas.  Or Gamads.  Or Anaks.

* A side note: I lived for two years near the Yankee Candle factory.  I could leave my front door, sniff the air, and know what type of candle they were making in that moment.  A stench of fake apple hung over our town all fall, followed by a vomit-inducing amount of spice in the air in November, and please-put-me-out-of-my-misery vanilla in the winter months.  I will never ever burn a scented candle in my house because it reminds me of the days when my whole world was a scented candle from which there was no escape except to bury my face in the dirty laundry basket.  So… perhaps my whole fear of Secret Santas is someone giving me a scented candle.

31 comments

1 Pepper { 12.16.13 at 7:54 am }

I don’t love them. I find it stressful to buy gifts in general, except for my daughter, and would prefer not to receive more stuff I don’t need/want. I would prefer to skip most gifts altogether, though, so I may be in the minority. My parents always request that we make a donation to a charity of our choice for them as a Christmas gift and I love doing that. My daughter usually makes them something small and that’s all. That’s the kind of gifting I like, but that doesn’t go over well in a Secret Santa.

2 Becky { 12.16.13 at 9:07 am }

Overall, I find Secret Santa to be an awkward social interaction that I’d rather avoid. I’m really not a good gift-giver, even to people I know well. So, trying to do that with a stranger (or even someone I just don’t know well), is painful. Also, the last thing I want is more crap I don’t need. And yet, I feel an obligation to hold on to gifts people give me (I’m working on that).

3 loribeth { 12.16.13 at 9:20 am }

I don’t love them either, for many of the reasons you listed & more. I added a comment to your post about everything being “too loud” to say that my (mostly much-younger, city dwelling = non-long-commuting) coworkers, who are enthusiastically decorating cubicles and organizing a night out this week (to which we are supposed to wear Christmas-themed sweaters — on top of the full office party held Friday night), also decided last Wednesday afternoon that we should do a Secret Santa exchange. Every day for a full week, starting the next day.

Really, I have enough going on in my life at this time of year, and enough people to think up creative gift ideas for as it is. I don’t need one more person to think about & buy an entire week’s worth of stuff for (even if it’s supposed to be small stuff), let alone someone I don’t know very well.

What’s more, while I’ve been giving stuff like cookies & chocolate so far to my SS-ee, my own SS gave me a Starbucks mug & box of Tazo tea one day. This morning I got a gift set from the Body Shop, complete with puff & mini-sizes of body wash & lotion. It must have cost at least $20. I mean, I appreciate the generosity, but really…

4 Meredith { 12.16.13 at 9:20 am }

I had a surprisingly fun time at a Secret Santa dinner and gift exchange this month. My Secret Santa gave me ten cookie cutters and a baking cookbook because she knows I love to bake. It makes such a difference to know and like the people doing Secret Santa.

But this post made me realize the performance of gift receiving makes me nervous. I always pretend to like everything, since I would feel sad and embarrassed if I knew someone didn’t like my gift. My MIL had me return two Christmas gifts I’d chosen for her — a bracelet and earrings — in February. I donate clothes from her that don’t fit if I can’t privately exchange them. I’m not sure what to do if she gives me items for our future kid that I really dislike (onesies with lines about bf or gas, e.g.). Tell the truth?!

5 Kasey { 12.16.13 at 9:26 am }

I also don’t like them. I’d rather save the money to buy something meaningful for my Mom or Husband then spend the money on something that someone may never touch. Now a Secret Santa among close friends is fun for me- If you know someone well then it makes it worth it- if you barely know someone its pointless and stressful.

6 nicoleandmaggie { 12.16.13 at 9:36 am }

As a voluntary thing among friends, sure. As a required exercise at work, absolutely not.

I haven’t done one since high school. At that age, there was always a problem that some people would go overboard and some people would do next to nothing, or save it all up to the end, so feelings would get hurt or drama would ensue.

Also, I hate candles.

7 Ellen K. { 12.16.13 at 9:38 am }

LOL. My mom received a random bag of gifts last week at work (she works in an office with only 2 other people), with instructions to open one each day until Christmas, and she called me in a panic. “Am I supposed to pay this forward? Did I miss something?” We finally determined it must be a new bunco club member who loves to give gifts and has taken a shine to my mom in particular, and no, she doesn’t have to pay it forward in any way.

I haven’t done Secret Santa gifts since college. It seems like the kind of thing that works best among a specific group of people who are sort of well known to each other socially, spend a lot of time in the same place, and have more money and time on their hands to plan and buy multiple gifts, like a college sorority or organization, creative department, etc. (Also Sweet Valley High.) I’m not saying that to rip on any of those groups, least of all Sweet Valley High, but to emphasize that there needs to be a certain group energy and probably at least 10 or 12 participants. Like Loribeth suggested, it’s a youthful practice and a wildly impractical one once you have mortgages and more extensive gift lists. (I just came across a shopping list for Christmas 2000 in the back of an old notebook. There were only 10 people listed, 4 of whom were friends, and I spent less than $200. Those were the days…)

Sometimes there is a White Elephant/Yankee swap exchange among D’s extended family, in which people who *want* to participate can contribute a wrapped item valued at $25 or less, and then you get to try to steal someone else’s gift. I’m not explaining it well. But liquor is always a hot item, and it’s kind of fun, because it’s not obligatory at all and it’s also done late in the afternoon, when the kids have all opened gifts and people have had a few drinks.

8 Delenn { 12.16.13 at 9:46 am }

Most Secret Santas I have been a part of have been fun. I would say that this would be because they were with people I knew if not very well, pretty well. The tradition in my family when I was growing up was that my extended family met on the Saturday before X-Mas for a party. We would pick relatives names from a hat a month before and you bought a present for that person only. It was a way to not have tons of presents, but yet give to someone you loved. Also, we had a X-Mas BINGO game which would then swap Yankee gifts–silly little decorations or candy that my Uncle would have gotten and wrapped. If you won, you got a gift. Once the gift was out, if you won–you could grab any gifts out there.

So, I have fond memories of Secret Santas…but I agree that in general, they can be a crap shoot.

(Frankly, my bias is that I LOVE giving gifts, so I don’t mind it at all….)

9 andy { 12.16.13 at 10:27 am }

I’m not a fan either. My work suggested that our team do them this year but then someone came up with the BRILLIANT idea that instead of each of us spending $10 on what amounts to crap for each other, that we pool the $10 from each person and donate it to a women’s shelter. Win – Win!

10 Brid { 12.16.13 at 10:49 am }

I think the gift exchange thing can be fun if there’s a party and a game attached to it. If someone tells me I have to pick something for someone else… less fun, but also less emotional investment. It’s not like trying to find something for my husband or Jack. I’ll often get a goat. We have a pre-school/orphanage community in Rwanda we are quite connected to (Jack has benefit birthday parties where he invites half the planet and asks for donations rather than presents) You can buy a goat for a family that will provide them milk and cheese… and income, if they can sell any excess milk and cheese. Jack bought a goat as a birthday gift for a friend once, and it went over surprisingly well… the kid loved it, posted his certificate on the fridge, and chatted with me about it every time I saw him.

11 deathstar { 12.16.13 at 11:20 am }

Hey I want LB’s Secret Santa person. Nice stuff! A few years ago, a friend of a friend invited us to a Christmas luncheon thing at a beautiful restaurant ie. expensive for a SS thing. We were supposed to buy gag gifts. But you could also steal gifts (when they were still wrapped) You could only use a steal once and couldn’t steal back from a person who took yours. And at the end you had to guess who bought the gift. I know, complicated. I don’t remember what I ended up with, but a woman ended up with a porno. WHO THE FUCK BRINGS A PORNO TO A CHRISTMAS LUNCHEON. None of us were under the age of 35 and we were all couples, 2 of which brought their 2 year olds, so really?

12 Hope { 12.16.13 at 11:31 am }

Agreed — when people barely know each other, it feels forced and meaningless to me. If the idea is to build relationships, why not just go out for coffee or lunch together and focus on the person, not the trinkets?

On the other hand, “white elephant” gift exchanges can be a blast. Each person brings one thing they own and don’t use, maybe a gift they got that doesn’t match their needs or taste. Some of the items are beautiful, and some are like … well, whatever that is in your picture up there! At worst, people exchange their old clutter for new clutter and have a lot of laughs in the process. At best, people replace unwanted things with things they’ll actually use.

13 mijk { 12.16.13 at 11:42 am }

I lived next door to a artificial flavours factory. I hear you and I cook from scratch always…

14 fifi { 12.16.13 at 11:58 am }

My old workplace used to do Secret Santa, and it’s not something I miss. “White elephant” sounds like fun, though.

I’m from a big family and we used to do Secret Santa, until
my siblings started having children and it became a “gifts for the kids only” affair. I have mixed feelings about this. I enjoy buying for nieces and nephews (it’s the only chance I get to buy for children), and I don’t miss the bath salts and novelty mugs that I used to get, but it does feel like one more thing putting me on the outside. I have one unmarried and childless brother, and this year we agreed to swap presents with each other.

15 Lori Lavender Luz { 12.16.13 at 12:16 pm }

Ditto: “I am not a fan of Secret Santas because it combines my fear of waste with my generalized anxiety about relationships.”

I may one-up you on the Grinch thing. I finally watched Love, Actually and was not a fan.

16 It Is What It Is { 12.16.13 at 12:40 pm }

I think the Yankee Candle Company should be banned. I cannot stand the smell when even walking by one of their stores. All I can think of is their chemical additives permeating my lungs.

As for secret Santa gift exchanges, it is all about the execution. I would never consider doing one (or participating in one) if I had no relationship with or to the other participants. We used to do them in my office and when they were spelled out with defined parameters, they were actually fun. People need directives and directions in order for a secret Santa program to be successful.

17 Catwoman73 { 12.16.13 at 12:55 pm }

I’ve never participated in one, primarily because I’m lazy, and hate the idea of having to buy yet another gift at this time of year. Yes, I am the grinch. I admit it.

I can’t imagine living near a company that produces scented candles. I HATE scented candles. I loved downwind from a brewery while in college. That was pretty awful, too.

18 Catwoman73 { 12.16.13 at 12:55 pm }

Lived, not loved. Lol… I definitely didn’t love it.

19 Ana { 12.16.13 at 1:48 pm }

Ugh Yankee Candle. That is gross, I feel so sorry that you had to endure that.
I’ve never done the type of secret santa where you give multiple gifts and do favors and such. No way, too much work, I don’t even do that for my FAMILY.
The lab I work in does a secret santa where you pick a name and get one gift for that person ($20 limit) and there is a big fun party with food and booze, during which time gifts are given out. Its kind of stressful to come up with a gift, but you can get help from the organizer (who will spy amongst the recipient’s friends and figure out there likes/dislikes), so if you don’t know the person, you can make sure they drink beer and get some beer for example. This year I got a good friend—the pressure was a bit much, because every year she gets more and more hilarious gifts to match her quirky interests, and I am not hilarious in a gift-giving way. I decided I didn’t need this stress and I’m not doing it anymore. Usually I end up getting a bottle of wine or chocolate for my gift (never goes to waste). I’d hate to get something I couldn’t use, though I have no compulsion about donating/throwing out gifts I dislike.
I do love the White Elephant-type games.

20 a { 12.16.13 at 2:23 pm }

I went to high school within smelling distance of the Nabisco factory. There’s nothing like the smell of butter cookies in the morning! (I would totally move away from a Yankee Candle factory. And one place where I worked smelled of fermentation and I would carry that smell with me when I left work. There’s nothing better than walking in somewhere to hear people exclaiming “What IS that smell?!?”)

I’m not a huge fan of Secret Santa, because most gifts I get are meaningless and I usually hit the wrong note myself. So, whenever my husband’s family decides to do one for “just the girls,” I generally opt out. Half the time, we don’t even go to their Christmas celebration anyway. And I don’t really give gifts to coworkers, but there are few enough of us, and we’ve all been there long enough, that I could probably actually get something meaningful. Instead, we do a semi-serious (i.e. involves chocolate or wine), mostly not (involves freebies gathered from training or vendors over the year, or regifting of crap from previous years) gift exchange at our Christmas lunch. It’s one where you can steal someone else’s gift if the mood strikes you. We used to do something similar at my family’s Christmas, but the max value of the gift was $1. That was always hilarious.

21 loribeth { 12.16.13 at 2:39 pm }

Re: Yankee Candle — I feel your pain. One of dh’s student apartments was directly across the laneway from a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was summer term and he had no air conditioning, meaning there were nights we HAD to keep the windows open if we wanted to breathe. :p Of course, the air wasn’t exactly fresh, with the aroma of KFC wafting in. It was YEARS before I was able to even look at KFC again, much less eat it (& I still can’t do it very often). :p

I ran into a friend at lunch time & was commiserating about the Secret Santa thing. She told me that at their office, they buy for each other but they buy a child’s gift that they think that person would have liked as a kid. They exchange the gifts at a party & all have a good laugh about them — and then donate them to a local toy drive. I thought that was a great idea.

22 GeekChic { 12.16.13 at 2:44 pm }

Various places I’ve worked at over the years have done Secret Santa or white elephant – though not my current work place. I’ve never participated largely because I was the senior manager or supervisor at the time and I didn’t feel ethical in accepting gifts from my direct reports.

My current place of work doesn’t have this sort of thing, nor does it have a holiday party. Instead, the company usually gives employees one or two extra days off as a “holiday gift” added to our individual vacation allotments that we can spend within the next month (or get paid out).

I’ve actually never experienced either Secret Santa or white elephants being done outside of the workplace but it makes sense in larger families or in groups of friends now that I’ve thought about it.

23 Kimberly { 12.16.13 at 4:40 pm }

Honestly, it depends on the group I’m doing the Secret Santa with. I have 2 groups each year that we do this with. One is my Monday night dart league. We draw names, we have a 20 dollar limit and usually when we write our name down, we will also mark down some things we like. For instance, last year I wrote “owls, cupcakes and tea” and the girl I drew wrote “Tim Hortons, gloves, Christmas pins to wear on jackets”. This year we didn’t write down things we like but we’ve been playing together for 2 years so we have an idea of what everyone likes. The girl I drew this year jokingly wrote down last year “sapphire ring and a tennis bracelet” and it became a running joke all year so I actually went out and bought the costume jewellery for her along with something I baked.

The second group is a group of friends. We have a Christmas party and each year, we have a theme. Last year we all had to make something homemade. 5 dollar limit. This year, we are doing a cookie exchange. We don’t draw a specific name, we put our gifts in a big bag and each draw a present out. We’re all pretty crafty so we agree to something new each year that will really push us creatively.

I don’t hate secret santas, but they can get stressful if you don’t know the person at all. But if there is a secret Santa where a lot of people don’t know each other, people should jot down some things they like to make it easier for the gift giver. It just takes the stress out of the situation.

24 chickenpig { 12.16.13 at 6:25 pm }

The last time I did a Secret Santa exchange I was in college. Anyone who wanted to participate put their names in a hat, and for one week during finals, we put a small gift under the tree every day. At the end we had a party where we gave a larger gift. I drew the name of one of my good friends, so that was easy. But even if I hadn’t, I would have still enjoyed myself. It was just really cool trying to find something nice for the person I picked. And having a little gift every day after a long day of exams and studying was a wonderful pick me up and a way to get in the spirit of the holidays. I think the typical office type of secret Santa gift exchange is kind of lame because your chances of picking/being picked by the person you can’t stand is pretty good.

25 Peg { 12.16.13 at 9:25 pm }

1. Molly is invited to a secret santa party on Friday in which the invte requested items of $30…they are 13. I almost don’t want to let her go, but she’ll be so mad.
2. I will never light a yankee candle the same way again 🙂
3. I recently started the candy crush journey (Damon downloaded it on his touch and it dumped on my phone from the cloud). I’m getting a bit obsessed…this is good and bad. Good while sitting at UMD at a swim meet all weekend. Bad when I found myself dreaming about it last night…brough back PTSD from tetris dreams in the 90s.

26 Tiara { 12.17.13 at 8:22 am }

I’m with you! I have kiboshed every Secret Santa exchange in every work place I’ve ever worked! I hate the waste of it! I always convince the group to participate in an Adopt-a-Family program instead…We get so much more satisfaction out of this! I convince everyone to pitch in the $20 they would have spent on the secret gift & we are always able to raise $400-$500 & many end up pitching in more than the $20…this makes a huge difference to a family in need.

27 Battynurse { 12.17.13 at 12:23 pm }

I’m torn. I usually participate although I usually feel let down by the gift. I think for me a lot of it is craving the various traditions of Christmas that I always felt like I was missing out on when I wasn’t allowed to participate.

28 Ann Z { 12.17.13 at 3:17 pm }

I’m not a fan of them, for all the same reasons that you outlined. I really enjoy the “white elephant” gift exchanges. We used to do those at work and they were a lot of fun. Our block has a holiday party with a gift exchange where you bring a wrapped gift and it works similar to the white elephant exchanges where you trade and steal gifts and everyone leaves with something. Part of the fun with our neighborhood exchange is trying to find something amusing and yet still usable (and within the price limit).

29 jen { 12.17.13 at 9:04 pm }

I’m not a fan either. When someone “boo”s me at Halloween, I simply regift the boo to pass it along. I don’t want the random junk people give. Yeah, that might make me a grinch, but I just don’t care.

30 Persnickety { 12.17.13 at 9:20 pm }

I can remember going to Yankee candle factory when I was in college- the factory was about 40 minutes from where I was, so it was a very occasional treat to go there- even though having candles in the dorms was strictly forbidden. I think I even made my parents go there when they visited ( in four years my parents visited me 4 times). I completely get hating the smell if you lived near there though.

Done with a small group of friends secret Santa can be fun. I think my best experiences were when I lived overseas and it was a small connection with home to do it, otherwise there would have been no celebration at all. I have fond memories of a “secret Venus” dones for valentines day in Japan – I generally don’t like that holiday or gifts then.

Family ones, where the family are all adults, are also good- reduces the amount of gifts one feels obligated to buy, and generally allow for more thoughtful gifts.

Work ones- really variable. I always seem to get the person who is leaving ( and who I don’t know), which results in me querying whether or not they will be there.

31 Amy { 12.18.13 at 9:25 am }

We do Secret Santa in my family. It started when both my husband and my in laws were out of work and money was scarce. We each write down 3 things we want/need (last year mine was new gym shoes, barnes & noble gift cards and a massage) and pull from those. That way, the Santa knows kinda what we want/need and can decide from there if they want to grant our “wish” or go off on their own. It’s been a huge money saver for our family…and this year we instituted no gift cards as the primary gift.

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