The True Meaning of Secret Santa (short story)

Picture from here

I found Secret Santa fun at first. Tashinda got me a fluffy turkey hat that made gobbling noises, and Malcom made a clay ashtray, delicately painted with flowers. It didn’t matter that Malcom’s Secret Santa recipient didn’t smoke or that I’d never wear the hat again once Christmas was over, that isn’t what Christmas is about, it’s about fun and happiness. So Secret Santa was great for the first two years, but then things started to change, it started to get competitive. People stopped keeping to the ten pound limit; no one specified a new limit, just that ten pounds wasn’t enough. Then everybody started using sparkly wrapping paper and ribbons on the presents, even though you can’t recycle either and they just get thrown away. Last year, in the big pile of shiny presents tied up with curly ribbons, mine stood out as the only package sellotaped together, in cheap red paper with bells on, and everybody laughed at me. But at least I didn’t get Dennis’s present.

Dennis is scary. Mostly he’s just sarcastic, but that can bubble into rage. It’s difficult to know when, it could be someone sitting in his spot in the canteen or a splatter of tomato sauce on the floor. Everybody is too frightened to leave unwashed mugs in the sink anymore, or crumbs around the microwave. And then when we passed around the Secret Santa gifts at the Christmas meal last year, Dennis smashed his new mug in fury.

“What is this?” he screeched.

Tashinda said nervously, “You don’t like it?”

“It’s thoughtless tat!” shouted Dennis. “This could be for anyone! There’s no thought in this, there’s no effort!”

So this year, when I pulled Dennis’s name from the bobble hat, I felt my stomach drop into my shoes and I haven’t rested since. What can I buy him? He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he wants.

I woke up at two in the morning, fretting. I tried to calm down by writing a list of all the things I knew about Dennis and possible presents: likes custard creams (buy twenty packets), doesn’t like it when people leave crumbs in the kitchen (dustbuster), has neat beard (beard trimmer). No present seems thoughtful enough. So, unable to sleep, I went looking on his Facebook page. I discovered he liked Metallica and is a member of a biker group, but he doesn’t have a motorbike. He often wrote bitchy lectures to people he called ‘A waste of oxygen’, people who needed to ‘Stop whining and starting winning’, this made me more nervous. I searched a bit harder, googling various nicknames he used for himself on his wall, following the friends he had, the groups he was part of.

If you really pay attention to what people write on social media, it’s not that difficult to pull the threads together. You can find forums they write on anonymously, Instagram and Twitter accounts under different names, even old Myspace pages they’ve forgotten existed. So that’s how I found out that Dennis writes poetry about his feelings. He started as a teenager, but hasn’t stopped, he just keeps it hidden. I’m normally a pretty mild-mannered chap, I don’t like to ruffle feathers, but I kept thinking of Tashinda looking crestfallen after Dennis broke her mug, and soon I was thinking: maybe if I frame his cheesiest poem, or find a photo if him posing as a teenager, maybe that would be funny. So I kept looking, and found more poetry, more blog posts about how lonely and misunderstood he was, but as dawn came round, I didn’t want to laugh at him anymore. I felt that all the bluster and complaint was a way of covering up for feeling unhappy and out of place, which are things I know quite well. I felt he needed a hug more than to be mocked.

I wasn’t with Dennis when he got his present, but I heard he liked it. I got him a book of Sylvia Plath poems and Ten Simple Steps to Happiness. I was told the books made him smile, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

Doing Christmas Your Way


A Mexican Santa

Here’s to the Rebel Christmas!

Here’s to all of you who do Christmas your way. And all of you who don’t, but want to.

There are many rules for Christmas: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, crackers, decorations, cards. And then the rules within the rules about how to do each of those things. It can end up being exhausting and stressful, instead of merry. For me, the best Christmases have been when I’ve abandoned the rules and found a new route through the festive season. A rebel Christmas doesn’t have to be anything fancy, it just has to be what you and those you’re spending it with, truly want.

Whether it’s huddled around a two-bar fire with your loved ones, with the only decoration a Christmas Cabbage tree (with tinsel); or on your own, eating chocolate pudding in the bath and singing along to the radio; or a rowdy drunken family Christmas shouting at the telly, the turkey, and each other.

My favourite Christmas was also one of the toughest. I had just moved to Mexico City with a guy I barely knew. We had had plans of finding work, but Christmas is not a good time for that, so we found ourselves broke and living in one hotel room. The streets were filled with sparkling coloured lights, but unlike home, these lights all played Christmas songs in bleeps, most of them slightly out of tune, all of them clashing. We saw Santas climbing up the side of buildings, reindeer on rooves. We went to markets and saw row upon row of little white Jesuses, and then row upon row of little black Jesuses. Mexico City loved Christmas. it was fun, but also threw into sharp relief the fact that we had no idea what we were doing or how it would work out.

We couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, and were living off cake; mountains of cake. We even tried the ham and sugar glazed doughnuts that the bakery sold (an incredibly inventive place). My companion, let’s call him Spider, got sick a few days before Christmas. So I found myself venturing out into the polluted, bewildering streets of Mexico to find something to cheer him up. I found strawberry yoghurt and a bookshop that sold books in English. I bought some spy novels and a Mills and Boon.

On Christmas day itself, we had a feeling of fearful doom and displacement, but together me and Spider fought the blues and spent the day reading our new books to each other in silly voices. We treated ourselves to a meal (with vegetables!) and the TV was showing the film Night at the Roxbury. It’s not the most sophisticated film ever, but it was just the kind of daft, joyous nonsense that we could deal with. We weren’t sure we were going to survive Mexico, but we were sure as fuck going to enjoy Christmas.

(note: we did survive Mexico, it’s an amazing city and once Christmas was over it wasn’t so difficult to find work.)

So to everyone making their own celebration, whatever you call it, however you do it, Merry Delightful Christmas to you. Relish every small delight on this day, when all the usual humdrum stops and can be replaced by whatever.