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.
Image: 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.