My workplace has mandatory Secret Santa. I didn’t know this before refusing to participate. I was working on a project and someone put a box in my face. I asked what it was and I was told “Secret Santa!” and I said no thanks, I don’t do them. With everything I have to do to get ready to go home and go back to college, with buying gifts for my own family and close friends (which, with five siblings, their spouses and children, runs me up to about 25 people, and I’ve cut down my list this year), I don’t want to run around Korea spending money I didn’t earmark to spend on a stranger who doesn’t need it. We work in a school with about 100 employees, and I only know less than 15 of them. Most of them are Korean and can’t speak English well enough to converse with, and I rarely see them.
I’m seriously not trying to be a dick about it – I’d like to save someone the hassle of buying me something that may ultimately end up in the garbage can or given away immediately, and save myself the hassle of going to either the dermatologist, or the bathroom 15 times in a day and rushing for the metformin, out of politeness to the gift giver, because I simply can’t use or appreciate a lot of generic “girl” gifts that one tends to get for a “girl” they don’t know. Even still, I really don’t have any inclination to spend even more money at Christmas time when I’m about to stop working and earning income in early January.
The woman with the Secret Santa box was standing behind me, still, a few minutes after I refused. Apparently, she was looking for my name, because we were all put into this drawing without our knowledge or permission, and someone had already drawn my name. “Well, sorry, but you should have asked me first,” was my response. This ended up with me being pulled into a 90 minute lecture from the head of my department on being more of a joiner and less of a thinker, and the Secret Santa woman running around the school trying to figure out who pulled my name and asking them to pull a different name.
The Secret Santa, I found out later, had a minimum of about 15USD with no price cap, and everyone, from the newest of part-timers to the owners, were in it. This meant that I had to spend a minimum of $15, and that the rest is left up to social rules, meaning if I was unlucky enough to pull the name of a much higher up, I’m out a lot of money, all without having opted in. Fuck that shit.
This is why I hate Secret Santa:
1. Secret Santa is forced friendship via gluttony. You can enjoy the entire holiday season without getting a single present from a stranger. A normal adult shouldn’t feel unloved because they didn’t get a gift from someone they’re not close to. Chances are, if the people you’re working with have the money to spend on a stranger (and in this economy, they probably don’t) it would be much more noble to spend it on someone who isn’t lucky to have a job or disposable income. There are much more classy things to prod and guilt your employees to do that would be good for the world, like give money to a charity to help those in most need in the winter.
Forcing people to be friends will backfire. People do not want to be forced to be with each other. This is why siblings fight all the time when they live together – familiarity breeds conflict. I know this, because I can’t stand my co-workers simply because they’re up my ass all day. Nobody likes having a wedgie, especially one they have to wait 9.5 hours to pull out. There are ten of us forced into a (potentially hazardous) 8×12 space, where I have to push and squeeze passed eight chairs to get to the water cooler or leave the office. My main goal each day is not to leave work with a headache from all the noise, smells, and distractions of being crammed in a sardine can with them from 9-6:30 five days a week. I’m sure my co-workers are all wonderful people, but I don’t have the time or space to assess this, because I can’t get away from them long enough to determine their value as people. I also don’t care to spend my free time delving into this, because I can hear all of their conversations and know enough about their personal lives to never, ever be intrigued enough to want to talk to them outside of work.
2. Secret Santa doesn’t take into account that not everyone has the same financial situation. The difference between participating in Secret Santa and not participating, at a minimum of $15, means I’m really spending upwards of $30 or so, which is the difference between buying a gift for someone I’d actually buy a gift for, buying a couple things for Toys for Tots, paying for my extra luggage when I go home, a textbook I’ll need next semester, or my utility bills. It’s not fair to assume that all the young people, and especially the foreign staff, would otherwise spend the money on drinking and club-hopping, as if we are just mirror reflections of the same simulacra of “foreigner.” For those with children, those with debt, those with other obligations, it’s not fair. The fact that they’ll receive an object in return simply doesn’t make up for the fact that they’re forced to spend money buying an object for someone they otherwise wouldn’t, since chances are, they don’t want or need the object they’ll get in return. I’m sure the new fathers at school are much more keen on getting a a DVD or funny hat than buying diapers for their babies, and the people fresh out of college are more interested in getting a travel mug than ahead on their school loans.
In that a sense, Secret Santa is robbing from the poor to give to the rich, since the poor not only are out money they would use for a necessity, but in return, may get something they may have no use or need for. The rich have lost relatively little if anything at all, since they have the disposable income to buy crap they don’t need and would in fact only lose out if the gift they got was of less monetary value than the thing they gave.
For example, Employee X is living a very austere lifestyle trying to save up as much money as she can for college in an uncertain economy (me). Therefore, Employee X doesn’t spend money on stinky hand lotion sets that could set off her psoriasis (me again). If Employee X is forced to spend $30 on a gift for a stranger, Employee X has been robbed of $30. Now, if Employee X receives a $30 stinky hand lotion set in return that she would not otherwise use or buy for herself, she is still at a loss of $30. Why? Because Employee X’s $30 was to be used for a necessity, not a luxury. If she cannot return the set for the money, then she is at a loss and has to find the $30 elsewhere for the necessity.
If Employee Y has a lot of disposable cash to buy luxuries and buys Employee X a gift set worth $30 and receives a gift set worth $28 in return, she only has a loss of $2, not $30. Why? Because she may have otherwise used that $30 on a similar item, and does not need to draw from reserves to cover necessities.
Thus, the poor lose and the rich win. Now, isn’t this the very antithesis of the spirit of it all?!
3. Secret Santa forces people to participate in a ritual that may go against their beliefs or principles. Even for Christians, many who may find gift exchanges to be an intimate affair, this forces them to engage in a part of the culture they may find sinful or harmful. For those who are not Christian, it isn’t fair to force them to do something that goes against their beliefs, nor is it fair or appropriate to thus force them to appear weird or different, or outside, because they do not participate in something that is – surprise! – of pagan origin, because….
4. Secret Santa isn’t Christian. It’s rooted in paganism. That’s right! The gift exchange isn’t rooted in Christianity. Even with the magi bringing gifts to the king, the idea of exchanging presents is rooted in Yuletide or Saturnalia, pagan winter holidays. Leaving presents and candy in the shoes of good children, as is done on St. Nicholas’ day, is rooted in pagan tradition. This is part of the syncreticism of pagan traditions and Christianity as the Holy Roman Empire took over much of Europe. This is a compromise of culture, not a rule. In fact…
5. The concept of exchanging Christmas gifts, in America at least, to the extent that we do, is not rooted in our historical Christmas traditions at all. Feasting is one thing, and giving gifts to close loved ones is another, but gifts to people you aren’t close to is, like in Europe, more traditionally done from rich to poor, employer to employee, etc. It’s top-down, not side-to-side, or potentially down-top. Even still, the idea of a tree with a shit-ton of gifts under it is a fairly new phenomenon less than a century old, and even still, not everyone participates in it. In fact, the reason that Secret Santas were started weren’t to force people to buy gifts for someone they might not otherwise buy gifts for, but to ease the financial burden of buying gifts for every individual in a group, like large families, clubs, or groups of friends who know each other very well and, more often than not, choose to be around each other.
6. If you don’t know someone, WTF are you going to get them? Seriously. Not everyone fits into nice, neat categories. Sure, some things are useful, but more often than not, whatever you end up getting is a crap shoot. Even “safe” gifts, like coffee, hand lotion, or gift cards, can go unappreciated, especially if that person doesn’t drink coffee, use lotion, or shop at that store. Also, forcing someone to go shopping, especially if they don’t like to, is kind of like giving a non-gift.
I remember times when my parents might get a gift certificate to take the family out to dinner, but with six kids, the gift certificate wouldn’t cover everyone, so my parents had to pony up money to spend on an outing they might otherwise not have wanted to pay for simply to not make the certificate go to waste.
7. It automatically sets up a situation in which people compare the monetary values of the things they’ve gotten. While “it’s the thought that counts” rings true to some extent, the idea of Secret Santa wipes out any notion that you can put a lot of serious thought into what you’re getting when you don’t actually know who you’re shopping for. Therefore, it’s not the thought that counts, because everyone knows that by the very nature of Secret Santa, you can’t put a lot of thought into it.
Our response to receiving things is hardwired, and largely universal. We expect the receipt of a gift to release endorphins and oxytocin, the hormone that fosters social bonding, because that is what gift giving does. It makes the receiver feel accepted, and makes the giver feel that the recipient (whether the giver consciously knows this or not) is beholden to them, which actually makes the giver feel that they are of higher social standing. Thus, if we are let down by a gift, we feel cheated, and if the giver knows this, they cannot have the coveted social position that they tried to buy.
Since it’s usually a hassle for all but the very few people who really, desperately need this sort of shallow and phony connection to other people to make up for the lack of meaning in their lives, most people stress out about buying a nice gift for a stranger. Thus, when they open their gifts, they’re not expecting to be rapt with joy or have a deep spiritual moment where they feel that they’ve truly connected with a stranger in some sort of karmic way, crystallized in a gift given randomly to them without affection or altruistic desire.
In a situation where no one is exactly elated with what they’ve gotten and know they can’t honestly expect it, the one thing they can determine is how much you probably spent on them.
They’re judging the value of the gift, in money, because that’s the only assessment they can make of an unwanted item. This is especially so when everyone can see what everyone else has gotten, randomly. If the gift is too expensive, it can make others feel bad, and make the receiver uncomfortable. If it is too cheap, it can make the receiver feel unappreciated, especially in comparison to others.
Since there is nothing intimate about group gift exchanges, it naturally fosters competition, and competition in gift-giving is never a good thing. Don’t believe me? Read the story of Cain and Abel.
8. It’s seriously just one more fucking thing you have to do at Christmas. I am of the belief that if most people did exactly what they wanted to do at Christmas, they’d do far less of what they actually do. Back when I was married and had my own real home, I had to buy and wrap gifts for not only my family but my then-husband’s, send out Christmas cards, bake cookies, help plan the office Christmas party, decorate the house, decorate the tree, go to church, make phone calls, make Christmas dinner and figure out other social obligations. Now that I’m not married and living in Korea, I don’t have to do most of that. Fuck, I can’t even do the things I like to do, like cook dinner, bake cookies or wrap presents, because that’s just not something you can easily do here.
There are some people that really like putting on all of Christmas, and more power to them, and if they have the time, money, and energy to add a random person to their gift-giving list, let them do it. However, for the rest of us, this is an annoyance and a burden.
9. No one actually appreciates a “gag” gift. So, I’ve gotten these before, and the only ones I’ve ever appreciated are from close friends and family who understand my humor. Otherwise, gifts given in an attempt to make me laugh after I’ve spent time and money trying to buy a gift for someone else pisses me off, especially when I didn’t treat the event as a way to laugh at the recipient. In situations where it is not agreed that you’re giving people funny gifts, a recipient of a gag gift not only knows they don’t want or can’t use the crap they got, but they’re the only ones with something that was meant to draw attention to them and nothing more.
10. If you actually try to find out what that secret recipient would actually want, you might seem creepy, especially if you’re the only person who has time to do that, or you may miss the mark entirely. To spend your time hinting around to find out information about a person you don’t really know, or try to observe them is kind of creepy and weird. For example, if I were to participate in the Secret Santa, and say, get something I’d truly like to receive, like this, or maybe this, especially since I work and live in Seoul, where there aren’t stellar bookstores, where there isn’t a single person at work who doesn’t seem to find critical analysis of suburbia to be something other than offensive or weird, or is actually interested in agriculture as far as I know, I’d be a little creeped out. How did they know? Are they trolling my facebook? Did they find my blog? Are they watching me? Sure, it can be easy to get something for someone if they have a simple interest that is obvious, like cats, or a favorite color, but most people don’t define themselves readily by a favorite thing. Also, you could totally miss the mark and end up getting them something in the realm of what they like, but something they ultimately don’t need or can use.
For example, I’ve been an amateur astrologer for 12 years now. Most people don’t know much about astrology other than there sun signs, or even know that there’s a whole lot more to the practice the shitty horoscopes in the newspaper. Now, if someone were assigned to buy me a gift, and to have a “tada” moment and think astrology, chances are, I wouldn’t get something I could use. Instead of getting something useful, I end up getting something gimmicky and ultimately useless.
11. Face it. You probably don’t have a talent for gift-giving anyway. Most people are not good at giving gifts, even for their loved ones. Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’re going to give people either what they specifically ask for (which is why parents have children make a list for Santa) or what YOU want them to have. Most people don’t have the gift of truly making a connection to other people’s tastes to choose a gift that they’d like. I’m *pretty* good at it, but I’m by no means and expert gift-giver, and I’m certainly not very good at it outside my immediate family. However, since there is a chance that you will receive less in personal value than you put out, it’s reasonable NOT to try hard to get a decent gift for someone. Like I said, Secret Santa isn’t about altruism, and isn’t about the spirit of giving, but a bald and clumsy attempt to create an illusion of brotherhood through coercion and manipulation.
12. You’re delusional if you think it’ll turn out as anything other than what I’ve mentioned above. I have no idea why, despite other peoples’ grumblings about Secret Santa, why people still insist its a good idea. If four people out of twelve want to do it, let those four fuckers do it. If ten out of twelve want to do it, let those ten do it, but don’t force other people into it. In fact, anyone who wants to participate in it should organize it themselves, privately, and not make it institutional.
People do not change their minds about things they are forced to do, especially if they know that you are forcing them to do something simply because you don’t respect their opinions or desires and insist that what you want them to do is better simply because you want to do it. This is like forcing everyone to meet up on Friday night after work to eat beef liver. Yeah, it’s healthy for you. Yeah, it’s nutritious. However, most people don’t know the first thing about how to properly cook beef liver so that it doesn’t taste bitter and chewy. [I know how to properly prepare and cook liver, btw.] Most people haven’t had good experiences with eating beef liver. Most people don’t want to stay late at work at the end of a long week to eat a meal they know they haven’t had good experiences with before and pretend that somehow, this is going to be different. That’s what Secret Santa is – forcing all of your employees to eat liver.
13. You have no right in a free and democratic society to treat adults as if they’re your children. Now, who else may have forced them to gather as a family and eat liver? Their mothers and fathers. No one wants their employers to force them into things the way that Mom and Dad do. This breeds resentment. An employer has no right to decide what an employee can or can’t spend their money on, just as they have no right to decide what an employee can and can’t eat. Mom and Dad force you to share with your brothers and sisters. They force you to save your allowance. They force you to go to your Aunt’s Sunday dinner, eat the vegetables, play with your cousins. The beauty of becoming an adult is that you decide how your time and money is spent. What you are expected to do at work that is related to the job is one thing, be it follow a dress code, work certain hours, perform certain tasks, etc., but what you chose to spend your money on outside of that realm is up to you. Thus, when you really and truly become an adult, you want to be recognized as one. If you don’t treat people like adults, they will either 1. Resent you or 2. Regress. This is a war of attrition, not a way to create community.