I recently read a terrific essay by a friend about a Secret Santa exchange at work. At first she was super Scroogy. In her words, she had resigned from the holiday frenzy years ago, the stress shadowing the anticipated joy.
But then she got caught up in the fun. She discovered details about a long time co-worker she would not have known had she not randomly picked this woman’s name. Stealthy gift-giving became a gratifying challenge. She thrilled at her colleague’s surprise, which inspired more giving. My friend ends her tender story with this image: the two of them, after the reveal, knee to knee, in rapt conversation at the holiday party. Secret Santa connected them in way that may not have otherwise happened, the spirit of the holidays outshining the stress that had eclipsed her joy in previous seasons.
This captures what a Secret Santa exchange feels like: sleuthing, seeking perfect gifts, surprising the recipient, feigning innocence at their surprise. And conversely: finding gifts at unexpected times and in unexpected places. All that generosity wrapped in mystery.
I cradle my thoughtful friend’s experience in one palm. I cradle, in the other, what I know about the things that preoccupy us during the holidays: food, lights, travel, festivities, gifts. Did you know 99% of what is extracted, manufactured, shipped and purchased is trashed after six months of use? That singing flowerpot, the glow in the dark toilet bowl, the bluetooth hairbrush, even the cute sweater—all of it, junked.
I hold these both as I navigate my own holidays: decorate, cook, bake, send cards, buy gifts, wrap gifts, attend parties. Also, if you have kids like me, multiply these expectations by the number of offspring. Also, find meaning in it.
I struggle to find meaning since the holiday rituals seem overly focused on consumption. Did you know the average American consumes 2X more today than 50 years ago while happiness continues to decline? In fact, Americans' life expectancy is also in decline as a result of several epidemics: guns, drugs, obesity and despair.
Think about that.
The United States is roughly 5% of the world’s population, consumes 30% of its resources and produces 30% of the waste yet Americans are in despair.
What are we doing? Why do we keep doing it? And why do we start doing it earlier and earlier. Because of what I know about the ecological and human cost of our voracious yet unfulfilling consumption, I too want to resign from the holidays.
I write this during the night, December 21, our shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Holiday lights flicker along my street. It seems like every year more people put up lights; maybe in the words of Susan Cooper, ‘to drive the dark away…burn beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive...’
I wonder at the lights. How we beseech them to dispel darkness of all forms.
How our longest night is longest day in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, too, how the global North is inexorably linked to the global South, where the production of things that dazzle for barely six months darken other lives with an existential threat. May we understand how our own insatiable hunger for more things to dispel our darkness, spreads darkness.
As days in the northern hemisphere lengthen, may too our understanding of our connection to those whose days we shorten beyond the earth’s rotation, for our fleeting wants. May we seek to understand their need like my friend learned her coworker’s wants. May we too provide for the wellbeing of the other, the stranger, who does not need to be among us for us to do so. May we consider how our lives, not what we purchase, can be Secret Santa. May we be knee to knee, in rapt communion with the unexpected, the unknown. The other.
During the holidays, I miss the stars. The constellations beyond our garish displays, beyond our garish busyness. Quiet steadfast light mapping darkness toward joy and peace. May we find our light, 'as promise wakens in the sleeping land.'