Pick a classmate’s name out of a bowl, keep it a secret, sneak nice notes or small treats into their desk, share a present at the school Christmas party and reveal your identity. Sounds simple, right?
If you’re familiar with the Secret Santa game, you’ll know that it’s played in a group during the Christmas season. When I was a little girl the game held loads of excitement for me. As the youngest child in my family, I heard fantastic stories from my siblings about the Secret Santa game. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join in. When I entered the first grade I brought my excitement for Christmas with me on the first day of school, waiting expectantly for December and Secret Santa.
The gist of Secret Santa is to teach kids how to put others first, that giving is better than receiving, be kind to everyone – not just your circle of friends, etc. You and your Secret Santa instantly become bonded in a weird holiday kinship.
At Catholic school we often discussed this scripture passage near the holiday season:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7
The game commenced with each student in Mrs. Nolan’s class choosing a name of a classmate from a box wrapped in cheerful Santa paper.
Immediately, I expected gifts galore. Some little surprise in my desk to discover before school, after lunch, or after recess held a kind of magic over me. A chocolate Santa or a friendly note was intoxicating to me. But nothing happened. Each of my friends was getting candy canes, tiny festive chocolates and ‘Have a nice day!’ notes.
I, of course, gave my Secret Santa a treat a few times a week. I asked my brother, sister, or mom to write a note so my recipient wouldn’t recognize my handwriting – because 7-year-olds are great at detecting handwriting styles.
I went all in – I thought of creative ways to make my Secret Santa feel special – those were the RULES. Mrs. Nolan worked hard to be sure all students were participating, but she must have overlooked the person who had my name.
Days passed and still nothing – I obsessed. I couldn’t figure out who had picked my name and why I wasn’t getting anything – not even a note.
A week after the game started Mrs. Nolan asked, “Mary, did you get a treat from your Secret Santa yet?”
My reply – a slight shake of my head and my best stoic face.
Mrs. Nolan suggested, “Try checking your desk very closely after lunch recess.” I nodded affirmatively. I was afraid to speak for fear of bursting into tears.
Rushing to my desk after lunch recess and peering inside, I saw it! A miniature Snickers bar wrapped with a note. I quickly but carefully tore open the note and read, ‘Mary, I hope your day is great! Your Secret Santa.’ Smiling, I looked straight at Mrs. Nolan. She smiled back. I knew it was her. She had written a note in place of my lame Secret Santa.
Even though I was glad Mrs. Nolan was nice to me, I was disappointed I didn’t have a Secret Santa who cared or wanted to give me a note or a piece of chocolate. Over the next couple of days, I found a small candy cane and a new pencil in my desk – each from Mrs. Nolan, I was sure of it. Despite the knot in my stomach, I put on a happy face when other kids exclaimed in delight as they discovered a Secret Santa surprise in their desk.
As gift exchange day arrived, I was confident I would finally get a gift simply because everyone HAD to bring a gift – it was a RULE. I reasoned that my Secret Santa couldn’t give me small gifts because they were saving up for a spectacular gift for me. I even fantasized getting a coveted Mod Hair Ken doll.
Mrs. Nolan instructed us to find the gift with our name on it. “In an orderly manner!” she hollered over the din of 30 kids making a mad dash toward the artificial tree.
Having several girls named Mary in my class caused a bit of confusion as to which gift went to which Mary. Holding a brightly wrapped present sporting a tag marked with the name Mary E, my heart sank as I handed over the gift.
Continuing my search was futile, there wasn’t a gift for me. Flushing with embarrassment, I realized I was the only one left standing at the tree. Everyone staring at me in silence; I moved toward my seat.
Mrs. Nolan quietly checked the name tags on the gifts of the other girls named Mary. Mrs. Nolan was prepared with several extra gifts in the event someone forgot to bring theirs. In a smooth move, she picked a small wrapped gift off her desk, deftly wrote my name on it, then handed it to me while instructing the class as to what to do next.
Each student took a turn opening their gift. One by one we Ooo-ed and Aah-ed as each present was released from its festive wrapping. Then it was my turn. I opened the small package. It was a mini coloring book and a four-pack of crayons. I smiled at the wall and said, ‘Thank you’ to the ceiling. Mrs. Nolan gave me a sad smile.
Eating my cupcake and drinking my watery cherry Kool-Aid was difficult with a lump in my throat. I couldn’t wait to get home.
Relating my story to Mom I sobbed, “I hate Secret Santa and never want to play it ever again!”
Hugging me, Mom explained, “You’ll want to play next year once you feel better! Possibly, the person who picked your name couldn’t afford to buy a present. Maybe they could be just as sad as you are right now.”
“I didn’t see anyone else sad at the party – they all had presents!” I bellowed.
Mom laughed which made me cry harder. Squeezing me tight, Mom invited me to say a prayer thanking God for Mrs. Nolan, who was the best Secret Santa.
Mom was right. I quickly forgot about the present and lack of a Secret Santa.
Second grade rolled around, and I found myself anticipating Christmas, except this time with dampened enthusiasm. The teaching theory of St. Mary’s at the time, was based on the Individual Progression Model. The structure placed first, second and third-grade children in the same classroom. The older kids built skills by helping the younger and the younger kids learned faster by interacting with their more experienced peers. All it meant to me was that I was thrilled to have Mrs. Nolan as my teacher again.
With the Christmas season approaching, I became apprehensive. I hoped this year would be different. Unfortunately, my Secret Santa fiasco reared its ugly head. I went through the same rollercoaster angst as in first grade: excitement, disbelief, confusion, sadness, despair, resignation. I think Mrs. Nolan may have been more baffled than me.
We repeated our conversation from the previous year.
“Mary, have you gotten anything from your Secret Santa?” she asked in a hopeful tone.
I couldn’t look Mrs. Nolan in the eye, so I responded with a silent shake of my head. This time, instead of wanting to cry, I was mad and humiliated.
Mrs. Nolan was fabulously attentive to me until the class Christmas party because she felt sorry for me. She let me hand out student worksheets, I was the first to read aloud, I got to be the line leader for recess and lunch break. She even chose me to hold the mistletoe on a stick while she taught a lesson about the meaning of it. I kept a brave face; kept hoping I would get just a Secret Santa note.
Mrs. Nolan filled in for my lack of a responsible Secret Santa with requisite notes and occasional candy, but it didn’t hold the excitement I envisioned. One day, I found a note wrapped around a pencil in my desk. I knew it wasn’t from Mrs. Nolan the minute I picked it up.
The note was written on a chunk of torn, dirty, wrinkled paper. It read – ‘Merry Xmas from Seecrit Stanta.’ The gift – a chewed-on pencil minus an eraser. Not what I expected but at least it was something.
Feeling sorry for myself, I recalled what Mom told me the previous year, ‘Maybe they could be just as sad as you …’ In my angry heart, I secretly hoped so.
The annual Christmas party and present exchange finally arrived. Having good intuition for an 8-year-old, I knew this day was gonna be bad. I was right.
For the second unbelievable, shocking year in a row, I didn’t have a gift under the tree. The look of disbelief on Mrs. Nolan’s face when I told her I didn’t have a present was a mix of confusion and pure anger.
I promptly received a super-sized candy cane. I think the candy cane may have been a gift from a fellow teacher to Mrs. Nolan. I was excited about the huge candy cane. Many of my classmates were envious which helped take the sting from being left out a second time.
At recess, the following day, I stood alone shivering near the door, I didn’t feel like playing. A boy from my class approached me. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me while holding his hands behind his back. He opened and closed his mouth several times as he shifted his weight from right foot to left.
I felt my face flush red, I said, “Hi.”
His face reddened too, but he mustered the courage to jump in. “I forgot to bring your gift yesterday, so I brought you this!” he said as he shoved an object into my hands. I looked at it. When I raised my head, the boy was running away across the play yard.
The gift was a gray vinyl mouse. I recognized it as a prize from a penny carnival game. The carnival visited our town every summer. The hideous little creature was stuffed with sawdust. Its neck was broken so the head flopped to the left. The seams were stretched which caused sawdust to spill out into my hands. I held it away from my body between two fingers, by its ear. The mouse made me gag a little.
I didn’t show anyone or tell Mrs. Nolan. I just took it home and threw it in my closet. It was weird, dirty and a little sticky. I hated it and the Secret Santa game.
When I said my prayers that night I thought about the boy and the horrible Secret Santa gift. I was feeling sorry for myself. Then I thought about how the boy must have felt. Was he embarrassed? Is that why he ran away? I felt sad. Did he feel sad, too, I wondered?
Remembering our brief exchange, I wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t buy a gift and that Secret Santa was a terrible game.
By third grade, I was resolute that I was done with the Secret Santa game. I gathered my courage and told Mrs. Nolan I didn’t want to participate. After a long discussion, she convinced me to pray for a good Secret Santa and to remember how I enjoyed the giving part of the game.
I agreed with Mrs. Nolan and consented to join in. I received awesome gifts from my Secret Santa. Very third grade appropriate but items that were personal to me. Daily, I received a note or small piece of candy with words of encouragement, friendship, caring, prayers – the whole gamut. Textbook Secret Santa. I wasn’t sure who had my name – could it be Mrs. Nolan? Teachers didn’t pick names with the students.
Christmas party day arrived. We students followed the same routine – find your gift in an orderly fashion. I looked for my name on a present under the tree. I was hopeful and excited. I knew it was going to be a great party. To my surprise, nothing was there. Not one present with my name on it. I was the only Mary in the class now. I even checked with several friends to be sure no one had mine, accidentally.
Dejected, I sat in my chair putting on a brave face, my hands folded in my lap. Classmates opened their gifts. My mind was spinning. I just could not understand how this could happen yet again! Mrs. Nolan was busy orchestrating the party and didn’t have time to acknowledge me.
One by one each of my classmates opened their gifts. When the last person finished, everyone was ready to play games and eat cupcakes. Mrs. Nolan requested the children quiet down. She asked us if everyone received a Secret Santa gift. In unison, the class responded, “Yes!”
My heart thumped in my throat. I swallowed hard.
Mrs. Nolan said, “There’s one person that hasn’t opened a gift yet.”
“Who?” several kids asked.
“Me.” I murmured. Enthusiasm mixed with fear, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“That’s right!” exclaimed Mrs. Nolan. “This year there was an odd number of students, so I had to join the Secret Santa game. I picked Mary’s name.”
My heart beat faster as she walked to her desk and picked up a prettily wrapped box from her desk. A warmth spread through my body. I loved Mrs. Nolan in that moment.
“Mary has had a couple of unfortunate years with the Secret Santa game. We need to remember that everyone has feelings, and everyone wants to be included.” Mrs. Nolan deftly used my Secret Santa struggles as a teaching moment for her young students.
“The reason we play the Secret Santa game is to show how much we care for others. We give freely and happily the way Jesus taught us,” she explained.
“Mary has been patient for three whole years. She has played the Secret Santa game and gave generously even when she wasn’t getting anything back.” Mrs. Nolan didn’t belittle the children that weren’t able to give or chose not to give. She focused on the positive.
Mrs. Nolan walked toward me. The small box was beautifully wrapped in white and blue snowflake paper topped with a shiny silver bow. She handed me the box while bending down beside me. She hugged me, kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “Merry Christmas, Mary, you’re a wonderful girl. I love you and your kind heart.”
A hush spreads through the room. It’s so quiet I can hear the buzz of the fluorescent lights. My hands tremble as I pull the ribbon from the package. I slowly lift the hinged lid. The inside of the box is lined with red velvet fabric. Nestled in the middle of the red velvet is an oval shaped trinket box.
I carefully pluck it out of the box and hold it up for all to see. The silver box glistens in the fluorescent light. My classmate’s gasp – even the boys. I place the box, slightly larger than my hand, on the desk in front of me and open the lid. The inside is also lined in red.
I breathlessly declare a thank you to Mrs. Nolan and give her a hug. I think to myself, ‘THIS is what Secret Santa is all about.’