The Only Black Guy in the Office does Secret Santa/White Elephant
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

Why Secret Santa Is Always a Ho-Ho-Horrorshow

Trading gifts with co-workers makes for some laughable moments

I can’t front: The holidays are my favorite time of the year. It’s a chance to kick it with family. You get multiple weeks off from work (thank God!). And it offers the perfect excuse to revisit jolly Christmas albums, from the soulful and iconic (Jackson 5) to the thugged-out and ironic (A Dipset Xmas). Nothing says the most wonderful time of the year quite like Gucci Mane singing about assault rifles to the melody of “Jingle Bells.”

Of course, Christmas has been degraded to a commercialized holiday that entirely contradicts the principles of the religious figure it’s said to celebrate, but I’ll still indulge every year. Whether shopping for relatives or the homies, my type-A professional habits come out like candy canes and door wreaths do the day after Thanksgiving. I’ll start taking mental notes as early as Labor Day so I can have all of my gifts purchased before lunchtime hits on Cyber Monday. Still, there’s one workplace phenomenon that throws me off my gifting game yearly: Secret Santa.

You know the drill. Employees each write their name on a piece of paper and throw it into a container. Then, names are drawn to determine who’s responsible for gifting who, with a caveat that said present falls under a predetermined price cap (usually around $20). Depending on the team or company setup, it can either be a merry morale booster or a hotbed of awkward pairings and stumped shopping quests.

Almost every corporate job I’ve held has organized some variation of Secret Santa. And nearly every employee would participate — which means I’d have to do the same. Otherwise, I risk looking not only like an angry Scrooge but an angry Black Scrooge who doesn’t really give a s**t about the holidays or my office mates (which is only about 25% true). Of course, this could all be in my head. Don’t mind me.

I get the appeal, but I just can’t understand people going full ‘Spy vs. Spy’ trying to get something that was most likely scooped from a department store bargain bin.

When you get paired up with someone you’re actually cool with, it’s fun to try to figure out something they’d appreciate — even if that means bucking the price limit and balling out (within reason). But when you’ve worked for the larger companies in my LinkedIn history, that almost never happens. Instead, you inevitably get paired up with that one colleague who manages to grind your gears like no other.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still channel your inner St. Nick while throwing some Santa shade. One year, I got paired up with Kelsey, an account manager who’d routinely blast the most objectionable music from her office. Remember that U2 album that Apple trojan horsed onto our iPhones a few years ago? Yeah, that. Despite the objections of her nearby neighbors, she’d keep it on regular rotation at inconsiderate levels (even while she stepped away from her desk!). My Secret Santa gift to her that year was some budget headphones. She didn’t take the hint, but the $18.97 was well worth it for the petty gratification.

Folks really seem to get riled up about White Elephant, a nondenominational Secret Santa alternative that adds the ability to hijack someone else’s gift. In that one, you go around the room trading presents in a given order, but on each turn, the selector has the opportunity to swap the unopened gift originally intended for them for something that’s been previously given to someone else. I get the appeal, but I just can’t understand people going full Spy vs. Spy trying to get something that was most likely scooped from a department store bargain bin.

These folks get overly calculated and strategic — and surprisingly pissed when they lose out on a desired item. One year, at a past job, the hot picks were a collection of shot glasses and this weird mini-putt golf setup for the office. Some of these people were getting really salty when they were forced to give up their gift in exchange for something equally tacky. It’s like, lighten up, Lawrence; just have some more spiked cider and chill the f**k out.

As for me, though, my go-to gift is a Starbucks gift card. Why try to find something personalized when it may not even end up with the intended recipient? I’ll take what I get and keep it moving — I don’t need any desk swag or yet another coffee mug with a cheeky message. Even if something were to actually catch my eye, there are always methods of landing a low-cost come-up. Everyone who has ever played White Elephant knows it always ends in these seedy backdoor trades after the game is done anyway.

All that said, it’s gonna feel odd not building gingerbread houses and spreading good tidings to my co-workers this year. I wouldn’t have even copped out with a gift card this time around: These days, books like How to Be an Antiracist are a much more necessary stocking stuffer. Truly a gift that keeps on giving.

Read more: Free Booze Isn’t the Only Reason We’ll Miss Holiday Parties in 2020