⭐️ winter things (on secret santa)
Since we were in college together, one of my friend groups has done an annual Secret Santa. These days it's pretty much the only regular groupwide event we do. Yet, when asked if I wanted to do it again this year, I declined. My misgivings regarding the tradition have been growing over the years, and I figured now would be a good time to put them to bed.
I first remember doing Secret Santa in middle school. One of the girls in our loose friend group of twenty- or thirty-something organized it the old-fashioned way: she'd make a list of everyone that wanted to participate, write names on slips of paper and drop them into a hat, and go around making everyone draw a name and noting the results. And it was always a good time—while many of us weren't super familiar with the others, it was fun to ask around for gifting intel, and most of the gifts ended up being safe bets: chocolate, candy, a handwritten card if you got lucky.
In hindsight, I can't believe she went through all that trouble. These days my friend group uses drawnames, a site which does all the name-drawing for you. All you have to do is register, make a wishlist (which lets you search items directly from Amazon), and view your recipient's wishlist. The whole ordeal, which once took us weeks to do in middle school, is rendered stupidly simple: you can click a link to the listing on Amazon, ship the gift directly to your recipient's house, and be done with your part in less than five minutes.
This convenience is not without downsides. "Good gifts show that you have paid attention," writes Kate Murphy in the New York Times. But when we list out exactly which items on Amazon we want, we cut that attention and empathy out of the equation. Of course, you can technically get your recipient something they haven't explicitly asked for, but in practice, I can count the times it has happened on one hand. I can't blame anyone for this either: after all, if your gamble doesn't pay off, it feels more like a slap in the face than it normally would, because, well—you could have just gotten them something they said they wanted.
At best, our Secret Santa becomes a chain of Amazon Prime purchases with the shipping addresses rearranged, and everyone gets the exact product they could just have bought themselves (except without the ability to return). Yet my friend group still manages to make this difficult. Some friends don't bother checking the website or making a wishlist for weeks, and when they finally do, volunteer painfully little information for those of us trying to put in the extra effort to get a good gift. What we're left with is a bastardized version of Secret Santa with almost none of the serendipity of the original spirit of the exchange and not even all of the conveniences of this modern alternative.
"Bad gifts make you wonder if the giver knows you at all," Murphy continues, as if she were watching us from above. One year, someone wished for a toilet night light. His poor Secret Santa, who had no clue it was a joke, duly bought it for him, and in doing so unwittingly made himself the laughingstock of that year's Christmas. (As far as I know, the light was never used.) As the years go by and we spend less time with each other, it becomes harder and harder to get good gifts, and the annual holiday gift exchange feels more and more like an indictment of an ever-weakening group of friends.
Many of the qualms I have with the exchange are my own. Most years I'm fortunate to receive something I specifically asked for, yet looking back, I can hardly think of a single item I've used more than a few times.1 And that's nobody's fault but mine: I recognize that it's hard to get me something when I don't even know what I want (and will actually use). My appetite for material goods only shrinks as I become painfully aware of my ever-expanding collection of unused things and the effects of my mindless consumerism, to say nothing of the unnecessary waste generated by those fleeting hits of dopamine. In response, I've been asking for the same things the past few birthdays: a handwritten card, a phone call, or even a text. Heck, at this point even a "happy birthday" wish burdens me less than something I won't use.
Does our annual gift exchange stop here? I wish we could find a better alternative, but it's hard when all of us live in different places and many won't be back in town for Christmas. I do like some of these suggestions though. Maybe we could try to do an escape room together, or play a videogame we all buy together? An unwanted gift swap sounds like an great idea too. What about you and your friends? Do you have any suggestions for us?
Only Bananagrams, which I wished for two years in a row, can I remember using more than thrice.↩