Anna Wood weighs up the pros and cons of the ever divisive Secret Santa
As I write this, it is still November, and it seems slightly odd to be penning an article about the merits and drawbacks of the annual friendship group lottery/ritual/war known as Secret Santa. The first of December is not yet upon us. I have yet to get an advent calendar from my parents in the post (pictures, not confectionery, because my family made damn sure we only associated one of our religious festivals with chocolate) and my social media newsfeed is full of reminders to register to vote rather than anticipation of the holiday season. Despite the recent film, I haven’t even heard “Wham!” yet (and for those of you playing Whamaggedon, reading that last sentence did not count, don’t worry). However, since the Secret Santa is a hotly debated topic, and can apparently divide whole Murano flats faster than the question “whose turn is it to clean the kitchen?”, I have decided to draw up a list of pros and cons.
Most people can agree that the main benefit of the Secret Santa is that everyone gets a present without having to buy one for everyone else. In small friendship groups, this doesn’t matter so much, but when you’re a broke student stressing enough about December exams, the last thing you need to waste time on is working out how to buy a thoughtful and considerate gift for the seven people you’re living with/close to without getting into more debt. It pretty much guarantees that no-one will get left out of the present-buying process, and also avoids the mild awkwardness that can ensue when someone buys you a wildly more expensive and “special” gift than they bought everyone else. Are they trying to say something that can only be communicated through a gift set of Lush bath bombs? Are they trying to sleep with you? Why did no-one else get a similar present? Were they in fact on offer in the middle aisle of Lidl and you’ve just attached importance to a gift that they probably put 10 seconds of thought into? Have you finally found your MI5 contact after three years of searching? All these questions can be very difficult to answer in a non-Secret Santa situation. With Secret Santa, of course, you don’t have them.
Another advantage to most Secret Santas is that there’s usually a price limit. Unless everyone has an incredibly different idea of what a “reasonable amount” is, this is normally around 10 to 15 quid - in my 12-person Murano flat back in first year, we decided on a limit of £10, and people could spend it as they wanted to. Some gave one big present, others got creative with a sequence of smaller ones; a favourite was the personalised mug - cheap and easily available on the internet but still a useful and thoughtful present. Sadly, not all flats function as a caring socialist republic, and this leads us to…
There are some subjects which I avoid searching on the internet to preserve my own health and sanity, and I feel like “worst secret santa gifts ever” would definitely fall into this category. (Although this doesn’t stop me from feeling a morbid curiosity about what the answer would actually be; presumably some horrific and deeply inappropriate combination of erotic lingerie and dismembered body parts). And there’s always room for the gift that makes you wonder whether you’ve somehow been projecting an entirely different personality into the world, which is why this person, who is clearly a kind and well-meaning individual, gave you season tickets to Partick Thistle/a gift card to BHS/a One Direction calendar and was convinced this was something you would actually be interested in.
Then there’s the fact that, like many things, Secret Santa is something everyone has to put equal effort into in order for it to work properly. There’s little more saddening over the Christmas period than putting genuine consideration into a gift for someone, writing down a list of things you know they like, panicking once you get to the shops and realising everything you’d thought of was too expensive but you’ve already bought a subway ticket so have to get something so it’s not a wasted trip, and eventually settling on a book on a subject you know they’re interested in, and then all you get in return is three boxes of Celebrations.
Probably one of the most problematic aspects of Secret Santa is that it also has a tendency to expose any fault lines in a group. Now that society is starting to move away from the unrealistic expectations of friendship as portrayed on Friends, it shouldn’t be hard to acknowledge that within a friendship group there may be some people who are closer than others, or who get on most of the time but irritate each other on nights out, or who have past grudges that are mostly buried but which occasionally resurface during otherwise normal conversations. For 11 months of the year, this is all well and good, and part of the whole “taking the rough with the smooth” nature of interacting with other human beings. And then, when December rolls round and someone didn’t get the person they hoped for in the Secret Santa draw, it can become a little more difficult.
So what’s the verdict? Is Secret Santa a force for good? Or is it something you should avoid at all costs if you want your friendship group/flat to stay intact? I’d say go for it. It’s the easiest, cheapest way to make sure everybody gets a Christmas gift, and you don’t need to spend masses of money - even just a combination of their favourite cereal and their favourite chocolate/snack food shows that you care about them. Although maybe avoid it if your friendship group is three frenemies away from a full-on implosion.