I started working at 17. Back then, I had few financial obligations, so my wages were spent on whatever , and whoever I wanted. The following Christmas, I made a spreadsheet, and input each present I was giving, calculating how long it would take to pay for them. "13 hours of work?" I said, "that'll be easy". In reality, I worked 4 to 6 hours per week, meaning it took 3 weeks to earn that money back. For me, that wasn't an insignificant amount of money, but it was worthwhile to give my friends and family the gifts they deserved.
At university, things are different. I no longer work 20 hours a month, and it's difficult to find disposable income after rent and bills. In my first year, we did a flat secret Santa. This is a common tradition amongst groups, and ensures everyone is involved in both giving and receiving; a win-win, right? However, it can be difficult to know what to give someone in this situation. How many of us have received a random, jokey secret Santa gift? The truth is, when there's an expectation to give we tend to default to 'funny' gifts, or things which almost everybody likes (e.g. chocolate). For that reason, secret Santa often lacks the warm, fuzzy feeling you get from picking out the right gift for a loved one. So why do we give in the first place?
Giving at Christmas harks back to the story of the three Wise Men. What we often fail to note is that the Wise Men arrived on the last of the Twelve Days. This suggests that whilst giving is important, it shouldn't be the focus, nor the motivation for festivities. This is reflected in Christmas traditions of many countries, like Spain, where the giving and receiving of gifts typically bookends the festive season, rounding out celebrations primarily focused on family togetherness and love.
It is undeniable that giving feels good; this is part of the appeal for both parties. Individuals have differing priorities for giving - some limit it to close family, others to a wider circle, and I too consider these priorities within my own giving. And whilst I love to give regardless of whether I receive in return, I understand the pressure to 'keep up' and 'return favours' created by society, which often corrupts the motivations behind gift giving and hurts the giver financially.
However, for secret Santa, we are fundamentally giving to receive. We may participate because we like our co-workers, but we also do it because our anticipation of receiving creates an obligation to give and avoid disappointing others. I'm not suggesting we ban secret Santa altogether, but that we use it as an opportunity to get to know people better, all-year round, rather than a reason to feed into mindless consumerism by choosing gifts few would truly value or use.
In the end, I gave my flatmate an 'Adopt an Elephant' kit which included a cuddly elephant toy - I figured from her room decor that she would love it. Money is tight, and I wanted to know that my gift would be valued by its recipient as well as a charitable cause. If we cannot escape the cycle of giving to receive (be this a gift or personal satisfaction), we might as well spread the giving as far as possible.
Featured image- Pixabay @Bob_Dmyt