Sometime on the afternoon of December 25th — or the evening of the 24th if your one of those families that can’t wait until Christmas morning — you probably noticed a slight guilty feeling in the wake of present-opening fury. Garbage bags full of shredded wrapping paper, Christmas cards with messages you barely glanced at, and enough cardboard boxes to build a small fort.
My family was feeling something very similar after the last couple holidays. The eight or nine of us would sit together, passing around gifts, one after another, ultimately leading to a distinct, lingering sense of disappointment. We were another American family epitomizing all the wasteful consumerism that Charlie Brown once lamented. We sat together, each with a small pile of dress socks, sweater vests, and flannel pajama pants. It was a fast food version of Christmas — a bunch of empty calories, bought out of convenience, wolfed down in a hurry, and completely unsatisfying.
After witnessing this, my girlfriend floated the idea to adapt a ‘Secret Santa’ policy, completely reversing our long-standing tradition of conventional gift-giving. With everyone in the family on board, six months later we all drew names from a hat, with a couple of people acting as surrogates for the out-of-state relatives. Whomever’s name you drew, that was the person you bought a present for ($100 cap). No exceptions.
Well, there was one exception: Grandma. We all agreed to let her do whatever she wanted, because she’s Grandma. This is more commonly known as the Grandma Clause. That proviso aside, the exchange was a smashing success. Here’s why it works:
You Reach Out To Others
Usually “shopping for the people on my list” means systematically going through relatives name-by-name, buying gifts that meet the exacting standard of “able to be wrapped and decorated with a bow.” With a list of only one person, however, we all had some time to really come up with something unique.
Almost immediately, the benefits of Secret Santa were being felt, as everyone’s first reaction was to start reaching out to mutual friends and family and asking what that particular person needed. Social media posts offered clues, random phone calls added valuable insight — it was detective work, and tons of fun. Gradually, we all became just a little bit more in touch with one another.
It Reduces Your Stress Level Considerably
It’s said countless times over, year after year, but it bears repeating: the holidays are a terrible, stressful, cramped, anxiety-ridden time. The simple act of getting a group of more than three or four adults together under one roof for the span of four hours is a daunting task, let alone all the unnecessary stress we put on ourselves to brave the mall as it teeters on the brink of becoming a full-on Thunderdome.
Procrastination was a factor in our Secret Santa, considering we gave ourselves almost six whole months to plan out our gift, and most of us waited until the first week in December before we started reaching out for input. Still, even after months of putting it off, buying a gift for a single person only involved a lean couple hours at the mall, greatly reducing the amount of time spent tightrope walking on the brink of the apocalypse.
You Spend Time In Someone Else’s Shoes
The actual shopping experience, while relatively hassle-free, had an unexpected aspect to it: those couple hours you spend at the mall spent thinking about the person you were buying a gift for. Having put in this kind of effort, it was easy to feel like we’d gotten into the other person’s headspace. With everyone getting one big gift-opening moment this year, everyone wanted their recipient’s moment to be incredible. You started thinking about what kind of gift they’d really like, and felt more confident in making educated guesses.
As a result, we all felt a little closer to one-another after the presents were opened, and our gifts to one-another reflected that.
It’s The Perfect Victory Of Quality Over Quantity
After each present was unwrapped, the receiver would try to guess who their Secret Santa was. While the handwriting was the big giveaway for most people (I had the accidental advantage of my girlfriend writing out the card for me), all the gifts felt like a representation of that unique relationship. Instead of looking at a sweater vest in the bottom of a drawer 10 months from now and wondering which relative randomly assigned it to you, these gifts were well-thought out and genuinely appreciated.
Cat constantly chewing on your iPhone chords? A durable, hopefully cat-proof charging cable. A fun-loving eccentric? An umbrella that changes color in the rain. An inspired artist? A handmade leather sketchbook with artisan paper. What these gifts ended up having in common was they were luxury items that everyone had thought about buying for themselves, but felt unable to justify the expense of. But more than that, the gifts all had something of that “Christmas spirit” embedded in them.