Zen and the art of Secret Santa

This year I was involved in three organised Secret Santa gift-giving groups. Over the years I've been in many more and listened to a ton of people complain about their gifts.  So here is my sage advice based on my experience with giving and receiving Secret Santa gifts; being a Good Santa; realising I have been a Bad Santa; being thanked; and with being ignored.

In case you’re not sure what Secret Santa is - it’s a game or ritual held at Christmas-time where a name is drawn from a group of people and a gift is given by that person anonymously to one person in that group. This type of gift-giving is popular in larger family groups and with people who work together.

Here’s a round up of what I’ve learned over years of playing Secret Santa to help you and your team-mates have a safe and happy one next time you play.

Giving Secret Santa gifts

The most important part of any Secret Santa is meeting any and all deadlines.

If you miss the cut-off point for posting your gift or putting it under the corporate Christmas tree, you are automatically branded a Bad Santa. Not only will you feel bad, your recipient will be disappointed and colleagues or family members will never forget that you were the Bad Santa that year.

Pro-tip: Be thoughtful with gift wrapping - include a card and message - throw in some chocolate too because nearly everyone loves chocolate. If the gift is fragile, make sure it travels safely: bubble-wrap is your friend.


Being a good Santa

The key to being a good Secret Santa is threefold:

  1. do some research
  2. stick to the agreed budget
  3. being genuine and thoughtful

If you have drawn someone you know, think back over conversations or instances from the recent past and tie the gift in with something you know about your recipient. For instance, for my work Secret Santa, I remembered a very small comment she had made a month or so before where she critiqued a donut. Such a small thing, but it meant I remembered that she had high standards for donuts. With that in mind, I made her a book to record her donut critiques as well as a list of places to visit and find Auckland’s best donuts.

In the case of online Secret Santa projects, it’s very unlikely that you will know your recipient, so a bit of Googling and Face-stalking will be in order. If your Secret Santa has locked accounts, as mine did this year, then you’ll need to try a little harder.

After looking at my recipients Twitter profile picture and her follower count (both visible even on protected accounts), I figured she was either very new to Twitter and still in High School. I bought her a book about being an explorer in her every-day world, a card, and some chocolate. I thought the book would be something she could do in her school holidays and maybe give her stuff to tweet about. Also included a list of age-appropriate Twitter accounts she could follow to grow her confidence on the network.

Being a bad Santa

This is to be avoided at all costs because people remember dud Secret Santa experiences their entire lives; plus, you will feel bad well past the Christmas period. There are really only a couple of ways you can be a Bad Santa, but the legend of that fateful mistake will live on much longer:

  1. If you miss the deadline to getting your Secret Santa in the post, or under the tree, your recipient is going to miss out on a present and then both of you will feel bad.
  2. If you do not put enough thought into the present. If you just grab a bar of LUX soap (my Secret Santa present from a work colleague in 1980; oh yes, I do still remember) or spend well below the agreed budget (a $5 gift card when the limit was $15; a story from last year’s NZ Secret Santa) then you are a Bad Santa and you should never have signed up to play.

If you can't meet the budget or the deadlines: don't play.

In saying that, you do need to be prepared for the possibility that you end up being a Bad Santa. For instance, maybe you did put a lot of effort into researching your recipient’s likes and life; maybe you worked very hard to match the budget and get the gift into the post in time. You might still end up being the accidental Bad Santa when you see how bang-on the gift was that you received and maybe yours was off the mark.

I experienced that this year when I saw how well my Blog Secret Santa crafted guest posts for thejamjar.com. I had worked hard on my guest posts as a Blog Secret Santa but had not been as selfless with the articles I had sent to my recipients. I can attest that it's a horrible feeling to have not done as thoughtful as I could have and one which I intend to not repeat next year.

Receiving gifts

Give thanks for your gift. It’s easy if you really do love your gift and it will take an amount grace and diplomacy if you don’t. If it’s the later, say thank you and find something nice to say about the thoughtfulness of the experience.

Online Santa like to hear a Tweet or two of thanks. Hug thanks if you can reach your Secret Santa.

To play this game is to be kind, remain nice, be gracious and say thanks. Secret Santa about giving - sometimes we forget that in the anticipation of our gift. One of the big lessons consider is that you can’t expect to sign up to a Secret Santa and get a guarantee of a great gift. Not all Bad Santa mean to be bad and the tables can turn pretty fast if you decide to be a ungrateful.

Pro-tip: playing with or using your gift immediately will make your Secret Santa happy. This year I received a Knit Your Own Bunny from a work colleague and was very happy to cast on and start knitting at our Christmas lunch. Also - Tweet photos of your gift or video the unwrapping - online Santa love that kinda thing.

Being ignored

If your recipient didn’t let you know that they liked their gift let it slide. Just be quiet about being ignored. After following the #nzsecretsanta Twitter feed I can tell you that bleating on social media about how your recipient didn't let you know how great you were for sending them a gift doesn't make you look good. 

You played - you gave - you were gracious. That’s all that was required of you to be a Good Secret Santa.