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Christmas Presents, Secret Santa Style

At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

I have four siblings and, between all of us, the number of nieces and nephews were rapidly proliferating. While we all had jobs, we found ourselves going broke buying presents for everyone during the holidays.

After a particularly well-gifted Christmas morning, tip-toeing through the mountains of crumpled wrapping paper, my sister sensibly suggested instituting a grab bag for the adults. It worked with her husband’s large family, she contended, so we ought to consider it.

And we did. That next year, after the Thanksgiving dishes were cleaned and put away, I passed out little pieces of scrap paper and pens to the adults still seated around my dining room table. My sister, a former teacher, dictated the instructions as if she were addressing her class.

“Write your name at the top, list three gift ideas, then fold up the piece of paper and pop it in the hat.” She held out an old fedora I had purchased way back when I was going through an Annie Hall phase.

After agreeing to $30 per person, I looked at my list and sighed. Only one item survived the cut, but an iron for Christmas? Really?

We all sat, pens in hand, and pondered our wish lists. While some started scribbling right away, I squirmed.

Something just for me? Really? Not for the kids?

This wasn’t going to be easy.

I thought of my iron, the one with only two settings: cold and scorch.

There. I had one item. Now, I just needed two more. Think, think, think …

Why was this so hard? If I ever needed something for myself, I’d just get it. The nice-to-haves were always too impractical or too expensive.

One frivolous idea, though, did spring to mind. Feeling deliciously decadent, I wrote, “A day at the spa.”

For a moment, I envisioned being completely pampered, shut off from the world only to emerge hours later way newly coiffed and manicured.

Ha, ha! I was starting to get the hang of this whole grab bag thing. OK, two down, one to go. Just as I was about to write, “diamond stud earrings,” my sister spoke again.

“Pens down. I totally forgot. We have to set a limit.”

Everyone’s heads popped up.

After agreeing to $30 per person, I looked at my list and sighed. Only one item survived the cut, but an iron for Christmas? Really?

At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

Reluctantly, I crossed out “a day at the spa”. Not wanting to cave entirely to practicality, I added a second item to my list, a year’s worth of chocolate, then finally, a third—my favorite bubble bath and a set of earplugs.

When Christmas morning arrived, we gathered at my sister’s house for brunch and the much-anticipated gift exchange. With the adults seated around the tree, she selected the gift for her recipient, my brother, and placed it in his lap. After opening it, declaring his excitement over receiving a new travel mug and a gift card to his favorite coffee establishment, he handed his recipient their gift, and so it went until it was my turn.

My niece sprang up from her seat, and with a devilish look in her eye, left the room momentarily and returned with a tower of small, individually wrapped boxes and placed it at my feet.

“A year’s worth of chocolate,” she exclaimed.

Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, you don’t know me very well. I’d have this new loot polished off well before the year was over. Second, be careful what you wish for. I needed that much chocolate like I needed another fruitcake.

In the years that have followed, we have continued with the gift exchange, varying the amounts by everyone’s financial capabilities. And my requests have also varied between practical (a new lunch bag for work), indulgent (gift card for an expensive salon) and benevolent (a donation to a local homeless shelter). What hasn’t changed is the fact that our tradition of targeted giving far exceeds our ability to gift an entire crowd—and is still a very good idea.

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