During the holiday season, I realize many dread family gatherings because of family loss, estrangement or dysfunction. Other families would love to gather, but distance, finances and/or work responsibilities make it impossible to get everyone together. I am sensitive to theses situations, but blessed that is not my situation.
My family is fortunate. I thank God every chance I get for being loved and the opportunity to love those God chose for me. We actually enjoy each other's company and have the means to travel and visit over the holidays, even if it's not everyone together in one place on one day.
Every year, our family grows adding members by love and by birth, making gift exchanges a blessing but a real challenge. To make things easier and hopefully avoid losing a crawling baby under the mass of discarded gift wrappings, the siblings' and expanding families now have a Secret Santa gift exchange every year.
We started the Secret Santa system several years ago when we realized the expense of purchasing gifts for a large and growing larger family was getting into the outrageous range. Plus, as we grew up, we realized getting together was more important that getting gifts. So, all adults (18 & up) are eligible to participate in the drawing and we limit the price of the gifts to keep it all in the range of reasonable. Spouses who draw spouse's name must draw again, but siblings can draw siblings' names. The drawing occurs on Thanksgiving Day and my father draws for those not present and are notified via email of whom to shop for. For a copy of Bylaws and drawing instructions, just ask, but good luck with that! So far, we haven't needed either.
That's it, but that's not all!
The gift exchange is easy, simple and straightforward alternative to mass gift giving, but I had no idea a Secret Santa gift exchange would actually keep us connected. Over the years I've seen how the resulting covert communication, collaboration kept us close or in some situations gave us a reason to get in touch with one another.
For the next few weeks after the drawing via Facebook messages, emails and text, the Secret Santas collect gift ideas from spouses, siblings and parents of the recipient. It is challenging, but the Secret Santa does learn a little more about their assigned family member and as a by product gets to catch up with others as they ferret sizing information and areas of interests.
In the end, only one other person shares our secret, so the identity of our own Secret Santa is unknown until the entire family, or at least the majority, can gather at Nonnie and Granddaddy's house. All little ones are showered with multiple presents, so my parents' Christmas tree cannot contain the combined bounty of gifts. Even with space reductions provided by Secret Santa, a fourth of the room is stacked with ribbon, bows, boxes and bags while the rest of the room is packed with parents, siblings, children, cousins, significant others and in-laws. The noise might be unsettling to some, but we always manage to keep it festive, fun and relatively safe. (If gnawing on abandoned ribbons and paper is dangerous, I might want to say - safe for children 3 and over.)
Dad passes out the gifts one by one. Mom cooks a meal and unless we drag her out, she will end up missing a lot of gift opening. The kids open their gifts first and run off to the den to play with their new bootie while the adults take turns opening gifts and discovering whom our Secret Santa was.
It is fun to watch others open their gifts and see how well our secret communications resulted in matching the recipient's needs or desires with the final offering. Shared winks and smiles flash and eyes twinkle confirm satisfactory collaborations and creative gift selections. If there are any gift mistakes or mismatches, no one ever lets on.
Even though we work hard to select an appropriate gift, Secret Santa is never about loving the gift and always about loving the gifting and the giver. My parents taught us that and I admit as a child, I was all about the gift itself. Did it fit? Was it exactly what I wanted? Only as an adult, could I see clearly what my parents already understood - a gift is just a representation of love, God's love. I see the same in my nieces and nephews, but they will learn to recognize love is part of the package.
This year, my parents surprised us all and announced they will join the Secret Santa exchange for the first time. They announced they will participate, but reserve the right to gift others as they have in the past. As I mentioned, there are no Bylaws and as matriarch and patriarch we could not, nor would not, refuse them anything. I look forward to them joining in on the fun.
I guess Mom and Dad, whom know and love each of us all best of all, won't find Secret Santa a challenge. I'm not sure if they will need to join in on the secret communications. We'll just have to wait and see. However, I'm sure their Secret Santas are busy working the family grapevine and investigating gift ideas. Surely, we won't be able to all pick the perfect gifts and the things we're given will eventually wear out, break, go out of style, but the love expressed in the giving will live on in us. God willing our Secret Santa will continue for generations to come and the love modeled will live on and on.
1 Corinthians 13:13 "Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love"