Reviving Secret Santa
Elizabeth Greason | Thursday, December 1, 2016
When it comes to Christmas, traditions are kind of my thing.
Christmas music can only be played once we’ve finished Thanksgiving dinner. My parents and I host Christmas Eve dinner and presents are opened between dinner and dessert, and no sooner. When we pull out the Christmas crackers, everyone must wear the big, limp paper crown that inevitably comes flying off. Once everyone leaves, we curl up on the couch and my dad reads “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” On Christmas Day, each of my parents and I can open exactly one present before Mass and everything else needs to wait. The entire O’Brien family — everyone on my mom’s side — rolls up to my aunt’s house for Christmas dinner. And all of the O’Brien family grandkids participate in Secret Santa.
Secret Santa started when suddenly my mom and her four siblings woke up and there were 13 grandkids. It was dubbed excessive for everyone to buy everyone a present, so the tradition began in which each grandchild draws names and is assigned to one other cousin, becoming their Secret Santa. Everyone gave a present and got a present, so it worked.
At some point, the adults decided Secret Santa ended once you turned 21 and as everyone got older, it essentially became a thoughtless gift-card exchange. But it was still fun. It gave us a chance, or even an excuse, to interact with the cousins we might only see a few days each year.
And then, a few years ago, the traditions I hold so dear began to crumble. Christmas fell in the middle of the week, so it was decided it would be easier to not celebrate Christmas on Christmas, but to instead create our own holiday, O’BFFC, or O’Brien Family Fake Christmas. Everyone got together and celebrated Christmas, but not actually on Christmas. It took place on the weekend closest to Christmas, which makes sense but was not the same.
And then, last year, the unthinkable happened.
After much — flawed — thought and debate by the adults and much protest from the under-21 cousins, Secret Santa was done away with altogether. There were some mumblings about making donations in each other’s names instead but as far as I know, that never happened. Only three of the five families came to Christmas and while it was much more calm and tame than years past, just like O’BFFC, it was not the same.
So this year, we, the kids, are taking Christmas back.
Over Thanksgiving break, texts flew around the O’Brien cousin world, figuring out a way we could bring Secret Santa back, our excitement bubbling over as each cousin got on board with the plan. And trust me when I say that Secret Santa is back and better than ever.
With two more cousins aging out this year, it would be almost 50-50 for cousins under 21 to cousins who were “too old.” So we tossed the age limit. I don’t know whose idea the age restriction was, but it seems ridiculous to tell half the family they’re too old for Christmas spirit. Everyone is back in and everyone is excited. Almost all 13 of us are old enough to pick out gifts for each other on our own and we’re willing to put in the thought and effort to make Secret Santa worthwhile.
Or should I say 14 of us? With the inaugural O’Brien cousin wedding on the horizon in August, we added one more name to the hat. My future cousin, or as my grandma now delights in calling him, her grandson in-law, Victor is — willingly — being thrown into the O’Brien family head-first.
What better way to become part of the O’Brien family than to become part of our crazy obsession with Christmas? Simply put, Secret Santa matters. It’s not about the present you get, it’s about the family you embrace. It brings us together and forces us to learn about each other and think about each other. It forces us to show up on Christmas Day. And it’s a tradition. And for me, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Secret Santa.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.