During this intense pre-Christmas period, some people are asking me about the so-called “Secret Santa” tradition.
The best way to describe it is as a Christmas game in which the members are randomly assigned to buy presents for each other. The presents are then distributed anonymously. The idea is a practical solution for workplaces and large families. A price cap per present is usually imposed in order to avoid extravaganza or frugality alike.
Until recently, I knew very little about Secret Santa. Having given it some thorough read, however, I discovered some interesting facts. Firstly, what I previously imagined to be an “English thing” seems to cover several countries in the Western world, not only Anglo-Saxon (Ireland, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand) but also German-speaking (Germany and Austria), Hispanic (Spain and Latin America) and even the Philippines.
Secondly, the tradition has a number of interesting variations, including “White Elephant” (where the participants can choose between opening a new present or expropriating the one previously opened by someone else) and “Secret Casino Santa” (which is far too complicated to explain but basically boils down to participants being able to choose cash instead of presents and gamble to win presents rejected by others). Amazing what people can think of!
Armed with this important knowledge, out I went to buy a present for our office’s very own Secret Santa. The person whose name I drew out of a hat turned out to be the former Energy Minister of Bulgaria, currently serving as our Energy Adviser. What could one possibly buy for an elderly man whose private life I knew nothing about? A serious present clearly wouldn’t do.
As I walked into Marks & Spencer’s home section, my eyes fell on a cute cotton apron. Could my colleague be a dedicated cook? Knowing Balkan men, I giggled at the idea. Probably not. Will he find the apron useful? Wouldn’t think so. Will he find it funny? Oh yes. Will our colleagues find it funny if an elderly ex-Minister from the macho Balkans gets an apron as a present? Absolutely; I was sorted. The apron was wrapped in glossy paper, tied up with a shiny string (I am female, remember), and discreetly placed into the common pool of presents.
The day of our Secret Santa finally came. The experience has taught me a few important lessons:
Price caps are good but bending them makes things more fun: we are a public institution and had a pathetic 5-pound limit per present. There’s not much one can buy for 5 pounds in the country like the UK. Some glamorous investment bankers in the City started from 10 pounds going upwards and could afford to stretch the boundaries of their wit accordingly. Then again, the salaries my colleagues and I get are way below those of the investment bankers. In short, I was happy to SPEND not more than 5 pounds but less happy to RECEIVE the equivalent value. Blame the human nature.
“Universal” presents are outrageously mundane: you are not assigned a particular person to get away with something impersonal. The most traditional presents I can think of are photo albums and – what else! – photo frames. There were at least three such screaming examples of the lack of imagination at our Secret Santa. Unless you know with certainty that a particular individual litters their house with photo frames, a present like this would be impersonal to tears and a straight candidate for being re-wrapped and passed on to someone else. And else. And else.
Spice up your jokes with some truth: our rather emotional Team Director was given a manual head massage device. An enclosed card read “Due to the headcount reductions this year, the gift has been limited to the head”. Genius! Mind you also, I have tried out the device and it did wonders calming me down. Let’s hope for positive changes on that front for the recepient, too.
Joke away but avoid sensitive issues: every one of us is touchy about certain things we would rather not be reminded of. One of my balding colleagues received a wig. I caught a strange spark in his eyes as he wore an amused face trying on his new hairdo. Such gifts are more sad than funny. I would only see them given to annoy a heavily disliked person.
Everyday items are not funny: one of our new mothers was given a set of baby wipes. I don’t think she is anywhere short of either having enough at home or being able to afford a few on her generous maternity package. It is like being given a toilet paper roll. For Christmas. Practical? Yes. Memorable? Mmm, yes. Original? One would say that. Something you would like to receive yourself? Absolutely not.
You probably wonder how my apron scored with the former Energy Minister? I am happy to announce that it was a huge success – largely because I had guessed correctly that the man never cooked in his life. Apparently though, his wife did it regularly instead. Perhaps the sole reason that my Bulgarian colleague was so happy about his useless Christmas present is that he didn’t need to bother buying one for his wife anymore.