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The Terror of Secret Santas


You wouldn’t know it by looking at Santa Barbara’s snowless skies, but it’s time for nog and wassail and all those other antiquated words associated with the holidays. For me, this time of year brings a very particular source of stress: the office Secret Santa gift exchange. Though I like the concept, I feel like the process of thinking of a gift for someone creates the awkward situation of reducing everything I know about that person down to a single object.

Is it in bad taste, for example, to give my copy editor a new pack of red pens? She’d use it, theoretically, but she could also take the offering as a sign that I see her as red ink-streaking no-no machine. (I don’t.) Would it imply too much, hypothetically, to give a desk-organizer? Hand sanitizer? A thesaurus? A bib? A haircut coupon? A one-way plane ticket? An appointment with a therapist? A lesson in how to use the word count function? Even the less critical Secret Santa gifts can still be awkward. “Hi. I remember you wore a hat to work once : so I bought you another hat.”

My office suggests a $10 cap on presents, but even that can cause problems. What if, for example, the perfect present costs $25? Would I be showing up my coworkers who all obediently bought $9.99 items? And what if I receive the expensive gift from the person who drew my name? (Like the one-way plane ticket.) Should I feel like a cheapskate by comparison?

Fortunately for me, my intended recipient has a significant other, so I have a source to go to for suggestions and vetoes. I now have to worry less about giving something that the recipient is (a) allergic to, (b) experienced childhood trauma from, or (c) already has. But for many Secret Santas out there, the moment of truth is looming ever closer: When the giftee unwraps her present and the giver must attempt to read her expression, is that a forced smile or a genuine one on her face as she gazes upon her new hat?

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