A Christmas Party Staple: The Secret Santa Tradition

The Zeitgeist Blog

A Christmas Party Staple: The Secret Santa Tradition

Zeitgeist Gifts, Secret Santa, Gifts under $20, Gifts under $10, Small Gifts

It's the most wonderful time of the year, they say, but it's also true that the weeks leading up to December 25th are some of the busiest days of the year. Untangling strings of knotted lights, remembering to water the tree, zipping through cyberspace on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, not to mention the endless hours of Christmas cookie baking, party hopping, gift buying, and present wrapping that fill our schedules. It's a frenzy we love. It's tradition we cherish. Despite the craze, it's hard not to smile at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, or not to find yourself singing along to Jingle Bell Rock when it comes on the radio. Many of us still recall fondly the sleepless Christmas Eve night we experienced as children, our stomachs churning with excitement, willing the clock to turn faster so we could spring from our beds and see what Santa brought for us. Although maintaining traditions is important, in true Zeitgeist-Lifestyle fashion, we don't shy away from an opportunity to simplify some of them in order to better suit our modern lifestyle. And let's face it-- Christmas is busy! Christmas is expensive! One of the best ways to "cut corners" while still maintaining the spirit of the season is with the popular Secret Santa tradition made standard in offices and Christmas parties around the globe. Surprisingly, this "modern" gift-giving tradition has a history all its own. 

Whether it's your office Christmas party around the tinseled water cooler, or an activity at your daughter's 6th grade Holiday Party, the Secret Santa tradition has flourished due to its inexpensiveness and ease. In situations where buying a gift for everyone in the group would be absurd, the Secret Santa tradition simply requires that each participant purchase one inexpensive gift for an undisclosed recipient.  

There are two common versions of the tradition. First we have the Secret Santa gift exchange—also called Kris Kringle in other parts of the world. In this scenario participants’ names are written on paper slips in a hat. Each person draws a name from the hat and the name they receive is who they must buy one gift for, but they must keep who they’re buying for a secret. Once the gifts are passed out (usually at a Christmas party a couple weeks after the names are drawn) and opened, the recipient must try and guess who their Secret Santa was.  

Another version of Secret Santa is the White Elephant gift exchange. In this scenario, participants buy something silly and useless that the gift-receiver doesn’t actually want (or they even might wrap up something they find lying around their house). They bring their "gift" to the party where all the gifts are piled together. One-by-one each participant chooses a box to unwrap and everyone watches eagerly to laugh at the ridiculous item they receive. It's commonly believed that the name "White Elephant" comes from an evil gift-giver, King of Siam, who in an act of revenge, would gift rare albino elephants to people who rubbed him the wrong way. These were known as fatal gifts because they were so costly to care for and would put the recipient into financial ruin. The story is traced back to the 1850's, but there's no record of any King ever existing so the history is murky. Regardless, the White Elephant gift exchange is still commonly practiced each holiday season.

Despite the White Elephant gift's evil history, the original Secret Santa has a much more philanthropic history fitting of the spirit of the season. Larry Dean Stewart, an American do-gooder who lived from 1938 until 2007, is known as the very first Secret Santa. He spent much of his life giving away his fortune to people in need. Legend has it that Larry was once at a diner eating dinner. He didn't have any money at the time, and was desperate for a meal, so when the check came and he had no way to pay for the food, he pretended that he forgot his wallet. The diner owner caught on to his trick, and rather than throw Larry out, he handed Larry a $20 bill and said, "Looks like you dropped this." Larry never forgot the man's kindness and went on to pay it forward to others in need even when he didn't have any money himself. Eventually, he landed a lucrative job in cable TV and made millions but never stopped his habit of regularly giving $100 away to people in need. In 26 years, he reportedly gave away $1.6 million and in true Secret Santa fashion, he did so anonymously. The gift exchange concept we know today is based off of Larry's philanthropic gestures of kindness.

Feel like following in Larry's footsteps? Even if you don't have millions to give away, you can still organize your very own Secret Santa party. There are a few tips to keep in mind. Use apps life Elfmo's Secret Santa generator to assign recipients to your Santas who aren't all in the same place at the same time. This ensures secrecy so not even the host knows who has who. Also, be sure to set a price limit so the gifts are relatively of the same value. If you're afraid that some of the party attendees don't know each other as well and might not know what to get for the person they're assigned, consider adding a theme to the gifts. You could all buy each other edible gifts, for example, or specific Christmas-themed gifts. Don't stress about buying the perfect gift, the purpose of the exchange is not to turn your hair prematurely gray, but to offer a simple party game for your Christmas gathering that’s in line with the spirit of the holidays.  

Stuck on what to buy for your Secret Santa present exchange? Check out these ideas suitable for anyone on your list at any price! Cookie cutters for your neighbor? Snore stopper for your coworker who is a frequent napper? Bike bags for your adventurous cubicle-mate? There’s something for everyone!

Gifts $10 to $20: http://bit.ly/1l6uOhV
Gifts under $10: http://bit.ly/1jxNdm0

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