Curse of the Secret Santa
A True Story
The lights. The blinking lights flashing green and red, alternating in duration, yet somehow in sync, clearly the difference maker. The lights illuminate the season. The smell of pine fills the air as I pass the rows of wreath and tree vendors. With several packages in hand, I struggle through the streets of New York feeling the brisk cool air, evidenced through my foggy breath. Yup, tis the season. It’s Christmas time. Whenever I casually walk the city streets, I always experience incidental bumping by New Yorkers seemingly in a hurry - typical. Now, there are shoppers with bags upon bags of gifts no one will ever use. I too am on that same quest except for me it’s a tradition that invokes a curse. This curse is not one conjured by a witch or warlock but one that was self-imposed, unwittingly through my own selfish, childish actions. Only after the third or fourth year as an adult did I realize I was under said curse. Some may call it retribution. Some may call it a well-deserved boomerang effect. I call it quite simply: The Curse of the Secret Santa.
For those unaware, Secret Santa involves a group of co-workers, akin to an office pool, choosing random fellow co-workers' names usually from a bag or the proverbial hat that's passed around. The name chosen is the person who you are now obligated to gift. The fun is in not knowing your Christmas benefactor. Usually, there’s a spending limit, typically $15-$25. Rarely will that limit be followed while people try to outspend their peers. People start guessing who will get the best gift. It does not matter to me what I'm getting (because of the curse), so I do my best to get my Secret Santa something special, something I think I would like in the hopes of canceling this decades-old curse.
“Hey Cliff, who do you think has you? Mary keeps hinting she does but then again Jill is also hinting,” said Larry, my cubical partner. "I think they both like you."
At the office, he sits right behind me in a neighboring cubicle knowing full well that I cherish my privacy. It's during my solitude when I can enjoy snacking on my Raisinets, Almond Joy or M&M Peanuts. Larry demands my attention, often interrupting my phone calls. Unfortunately, I take him with me on my shopping spree, hoping that he will inspire the right gift.
“It does not matter Larry,” I said. “It’s the season for giving not getting.” I say this wincing to myself, remembering the curse.
“Get out of here. You know you’re curious just like everybody else. Who do you have? Come on I won’t tell anyone.” said Larry.
“I’m not telling you. It’s against the rules.” I said.
“Man, you’re such a stickler. It’s Christmas man, tell me,” said Larry.
I simply shake my head and continue through the Manhattan Mall, looking like everyone else for that last minute item.
Larry just could not help himself. "I have the big boss, Mr. Stengler. No one wanted him but you know what I got him?” said Larry.
“You're not supposed to say anything, Larry,” I said.
“Blah blah blah …I got him two tickets to the last Giants game of the season!!!” Larry shouted.
“What?” I stopped in my track almost dropping my shoulder bag.
“Yup, you know how he loves the Giants and how he lets us do the office Sunday football pool. He’s going to love it! I just hope he'll take me!” Larry said. "I also hope that's enough to impress Gabriella." He's been eyeing the new office manager who seems a bit out of his league, on the high maintenance end.
“That’s way over budget Larry. How do you think everyone is going to feel?” I asked.
“I don’t care. Anything to get on his good side,” he said.
I don’t get it. Why even set rules if people will ignore them? I shrugged my shoulders and look at a small gadget store. I see pens, mugs, desk mats, hand bags. They all seem typical and not special. I want to get something different, something that may actually remove this curse. I think that by now I have learned my lesson. I hope that by now I will be redeemed.
“Listen, Larry, I’m looking for something just right. No, I will not tell you who I have,” I said.
“Ok Cliff, I have to run. Don’t break the bank…” said Larry as he waved me off and veered toward the mall subway entrance. “See you at the office party.”
“It’s at D’Angelos right, on the east side?” I shouted, watching his head lower as the escalator descends. He’s nodding as he raises his thumbs up.
I walk back to the gadget store and look at the business card holder. That won’t break the bank, I think to myself. Our firm is not the big wall street type but it’s busy enough that demands notice when a paralegal enters the court with filings that require signatures and court stamps. Julie is our new paralegal who directly helps Mr. Stengler. I am her Secret Santa so I figure that a nice gold plated business card holder with her engraved name would be special and unique. Not only will she be impressed but Mr. Stengler should take notice.
The Christmas Party
D’Angelos is all decked out in the traditional Christmas lights, garland, and even a Salvation Army Santa pacing outside ringing his bell shouting "Ho Ho Ho." Outside snowflakes are sprinkling ever so gently. I enter the restaurant seeing my co-workers decked out in red Santa hats chatting and drinking at their assigned seats. The buffet is three tables long and set to the right. At the center of the room is a round table filled with gifts of different sizes and assorted wrappers. There’s even a mike in front of the gift table.
“Hey Cliff, Merry Christmas!” Jill shouted from across the room pointing up to an awkwardly hung mistletoe. I simply wave hoping to get this night over, wondering to myself how the curse will hit me this year. I place my gift on the heap and search for my seat. Larry waves me over.
“Merry Christmas Cliff,” he said, “That gift looks kinda small”
“It’s appropriate and within the budget rules!” I said glaring at him.
“That's you, the stickler”, said Larry.
After dinner, the gift giving begins. Mr. Stengler takes the mike and gives the obligatory Christmas holiday speech. He picks a gift, calls out the name on the gift, and hands the gift to the intended recipient. He picks out Anthony, Pete, April and Joseph.
"Here's an interesting one!" he said. "It's my gift!! I wonder what it is."
Mr. Stengler opens what appears to be a rectangular envelope. His eyes widen with unexpected surprise.
"Two Tickets to the last Giant game of the season!!!" he said. "Let's see who did this? It's Larry!"
Larry is grinning like the Cheshire cat, everyone at his table patting his back.
"I now have a place to celebrate my new engagement to Gabriella! She said yes to my proposal earlier this evening! We will definitely enjoy this one. Merry Christmas! Thank you Larry!" beamed Mr. Stengler. Larry continued smiling and nodding but only I noticed the corner of his mouth slightly curled down.
The gifting continues for a good 10 minutes. Mr. Stengler then calls out my name. There is almost a hush in the room. You see, no one knows of the curse. They think I'm just unlucky. They know how I received a pack of T-shirts one year and a toenail clipper the other. They all thought that I was getting a hint at my hygiene but that was never the case. It was and still is the curse.
Maybe this year will be different. I thought to myself. Maybe this will be the last year. I picture a cardigan sweater, maybe even a scarf. Either way, it'll be a vast improvement. Even a board game will eliminate the curse.
Mr. Stengler hands me a beautifully wrapped package with a green bow. It feels light and malleable. It is definitely bigger than a bread box but nothing truly solid. Nope not a chess set.
“Go ahead son, open it up,” said Mr. Stengler.
I watch everyone watching me, almost ready for a huge laugh or a sigh of relief. I rip the wrapping, slowing at first, then I unravel it all together. I grab the gift and wave it at everyone. Some were laughing, others were looking away with embarrassment. I simply laugh and nod, the curse is still alive. I receive a bag of miniature Raisinets, something suitable for Halloween. I simply had to laugh, but this time I take the mike away from Mr. Stengler.
“Thank you to my Secret Santa,” I begin. “but you see I knew that I was getting a zinger this year. What you guys don't know, I am held under a spell I call the Curse of the Secret Santa.”
They were laughing at this. I heard someone yell, “you got that right!” as others were relaying the story of what has happened over the years. I slowly peer at everyone as I visually canvass the room.
“In the third grade, I engaged in my first Secret Santa,” I began, “I did not know what it meant but at ten years old you knew you simply had to get a toy for someone.” There were murmurs but soon the room grew silent. “I believe her name was Maria. I got her some type of popular Barbie at the time. I did not know who picked my name. It was still back then supposed to be a secret." I glanced over at Larry.
"I waited with a great deal of anticipation. Everyone was getting cool things like yo-yos, comic books, and baseball cards, so I was waiting and hoping for something nice. Then Karen approached me. You see, no one liked Karen since she was loud, unfriendly and simply not a nice person. She put on my desk my gift. She barely smiled. She barely said Merry Christmas.”
Everyone seemed to have stopped what they were doing trying to understand where this story was going.
“I unwrapped the gift with a wary anticipation. I received three 5 subject loose leaf binder notebooks. All used. Notebooks! So where’s my toy? I asked myself. The notebooks were my gift.”
At this point there were some chuckles. I heard someone say “It figures”.
I continue, "Instead of saying thank you or Merry Christmas…what do you think I did with those notebooks?” Someone yelled “You sold them…you used them in school…used it as cat litter…” There was a smattering of chuckles. “I gave them back to her,” I said. “I never said thank you. Nor was I understanding of how poor she was and that the least she could do was give what she had. Even though she was not liked, she did give a gift. Instead, I gave them back.” At this point there was complete silence. “Every year after that selfish act of insensitivity every Secret Santa I’ve participated in I’ve received…well let’s say less than expected gifts.”
“So, I say thank you Secret Santa for realizing that I love Raisinets and even though this does not meet the minimum cost , I accept it and chalk it up to the curse.” As I was giving the mike back to Mr. Stengler, I said one final thing, “Karen, wherever you are, please forgive me and thank you for your kind gift.”
I gave the mic back to Mr. Stengler who cleared his throat with an awkward “Merry Christmas” as he went on to the next gift.