In exchange for a salary, office workers do a lot of terrible things: sitting down to meetings, making the commute to and from work every day, feigning enthusiasm for their employer’s particular vision.
When the holiday season arrives, they too, forced by a strange mixture of perceived obligation and genuine Christmas spirit, sometimes exchange gifts with each other. A common, and often uncomfortable, form of this annual tradition is Santa’s Secret, in which participants randomly select a co-worker’s name and then anonymously give that person a small gift. Many office workers happily channel their holiday cheer into Secret Santa, but many people, even those who don’t show the slightest hint to the contrary, aren’t interested.
“I feel like [my coworkers] really can’t know me well enough to give me a gift that is meaningful in any way,” Beatrice Loayza, a 26-year-old writer who has an administrative office job during the day, told me. She said the gifts people in her office receive from each other tend to be unimaginative, “like a generic item of clothing or some generic male or female gift. Everything that is exchanged feels a little forced.” A year or two ago, he received a foldable bag “in these hideous glossy feminine colors” that is currently, still unused, under his desk. His contributions from Secret Santa have been so halfhearted, he said, “I’m going to get a bottle of wine 15 minutes before the party or something.”
Recently, the Loayza Secret Santa experience almost went from mediocre to actively unpleasant. “This year, I chose [out of a hat] the only person I legitimately dislike,” he said. “In the past, there have been times when you have eaten my lunch.” To get out of this situation, she pretended to have drawn her own name, which under the rules of Secret Santa requires the selection of another name.
Read: The Rise Of The Remote Work Christmas Party
Loayza has reluctantly participated in the Santa Secreta exchange from his workplace for five consecutive years. “Due to the intimacy of this small pseudo-family office, it is very evident if someone did not participate,” he told me.
She is not alone in her disappointment. According to a survey published last month by the British platform Jobsite, Jobs, 20 percent of workers in the UK would prefer not to hold celebrations in the office, including Secret Santas and meetings in honor of an employee’s promotion or birthday, if they involve financial contributions from employees. Millennials in particular did not like these holidays, with 73 percent of them reporting that at some point they had spent more than they could afford on such events, compared to 58 percent of workers overall.
And many people feel that they cannot choose not to participate in the office-sponsored “fun”, whether organized by the company or by a few cheerful employees. “How can you say no to what your company asks you to do?” Sam Warren, professor of organization studies and human resource management at the University of Portsmouth, wrote in an email. “Would it affect your [job] prospects? What does it say about your attitude towards being a team player, or your relationship with your coworkers? How can you say no to fun?
Warren has studied the dynamics of fun in the workplace, and when employees have fun with their coworkers, he noted, it can make them less stressed and more loyal to their employer. But what management finds enjoyable can sometimes make the job uncomfortable. “Often employees have a ‘self job’ and a ‘personal being’ and it is awkward to mix the two,” he wrote. “Today’s work cultures foster the confusion of boundaries that asks many employees to prefer to keep things separate, especially introverts.”
Last year, The Cut documented several Secret Santa horror stories, one woman said her boss gave her a book of sexual advice, and they are indeed horrible, but what I heard from those I interviewed were cruelly mundane gift anecdotes. Kishan Purohit, a 29-year-old consultant in Mumbai, has participated in seven or eight Secret Santas offices, and the least inspiring gift he received was a cup of coffee with a motivational quote. “It said‘ Take advantage of the day ’or something like that,” for which it had no use, especially since “I usually take advantage of my day always.” He gave it away.
In his early years in an office, he didn’t mind gift exchanges, but they began to thank him when he got caught in a cycle of receiving meaningless paraphernalia (like the mug) and giving boxes of chocolates to nearby strangers (“A Safe Bet” ). Several of the Secret Santas Purohit he has participated in were huge, with 100 or more people giving each other gifts. (Often times, the person who was assigned to buy a gift was someone they had never interacted with.) He preferred that the company host a dinner or community service event, but Secret Santa persists and, for fear of being seen as a fan of the party, so does Purohit’s participation in it.
Some of the annoyances Rob, a 37-year-old man who works at a technology company in Amsterdam, has for Secret Santa is also related to a disappointing gift. One year, “everyone received nice, thoughtful gifts, and what I got was a metal sign saying: If I remember correctly, of course, I will solve your problem as soon as I have solved the others.” he told me. “I remember thinking, damn it, is this the impression people have of me that would be fun for me?” To make matters worse, there was a policy against fixing things in Rob’s office. (Perhaps it was intended as home decor?) “It went in the trash,” he said. (Rob asked to be identified only by his first name, because he does not want to harm his relationships with his coworkers.)
Another complaint from him is that some people stick to established rules and others don’t, completely ignoring spending limits or trying to trade names so they can get a gift for one of their friends. Despite the € 15 limit, at least one person received a Lego set that cost around € 100. My desk colleague received a paperback on Christianity, so a mixed bag, ”he told me.
Rob has had it with Secret Santas, and after years of engaging in these “theoretically optional” activities, he’s finally choosing to go out now that he feels he’s established himself socially at work. “I’m just going to miss the deadline, and if someone says something, I’m just going to say I forgot,” he told me.
The times Rob really enjoyed exchanging gifts with his coworkers was when he and some friends from work established their own little secret Santa Claus. “It was the equivalent work of the WhatsApp group emerging from the WhatsApp group that excludes the two really annoying people,” he said.
In fact, “Research on fun at work shows that self-made fun (fun things that people do for themselves) are the only activities that people really enjoy,” said Warren, the business school professor.
However, a twist is that workers sometimes have fun within the limits of the framework prescribed by their employer. “Often the” laughable “fun show, which people see as a superficial management gimmick, becomes an object of self-mockery and fun, so the end result is the same,” Warren said. But if the best part of the Secret Santa office is making fun of it, well, that says it all.