Thursday, January 15, 2004

Secret Santa

Christmas has changed since I was kid. Not just because I figured out the whole Santa thing. Although that was a biggie. I'll never forget the year I finally realized that all those presents that magically appeared under the tree on Christmas morning were really from my parents and not from Jolly Old St. Nick. I went back to college that following semester a different person. Wiser, yes, but also a little sadder. I couldn't help wondering how the other kids in my dorm would react if they ever found out. Such a shock to a young developing mind. I wanted to tell them about my discovery -- to share with them the incredible life-altering revelation I had experienced. Perhaps to help guide them to a higher level of understanding. But, I couldn't. I just didn't have the heart. They seemed so innocent and pure and I didn't want to be the one to shatter their beliefs. No just yet. Maybe after graduation...

No, it's not just the mythology of Christmas, but the whole methodology of it that has changed. We used to write letters to Santa with our wish list of favorite toys: a G.I. Joe with kung-fu grip, a Hot Wheels parking garage and service station with working car elevator, an official size and weight genuine cowhide NFL football with real laces, and so on. Then we'd give the letter to our parents and they'd mail it to the North Pole so Santa could bring us what we wanted on Christmas morning. It was a simple system, based the time-tested foundations of delusion, deceit and mail fraud. And most of the time it worked. Although sometimes Santa screwed up and got a G.I. Joe that didn't have the kung-fu grip but had a cheesy fake beard instead. Or a matchbox parking garage instead of Hot Wheels. Or, worst of all, a plastic football with fake laces that were just painted on. Come on Santa!

These days such faux pas are unheard of, thanks to the miracle of the internet. These days instead of writing a letter to Santa, we simply send an email complete with embedded hyperlinks that, with a simple click of the mouse, whisk the reader directly to the websites offering the toys of our choosing and within minutes said toys have been purchased and will be shipped within 3-5 business days.

And as an added improvement, this year our family got really clever and instituted the Secret Santa program. Under the guidelines of this brilliant system, instead of buying and shipping a dozen different presents to locations all over the map, all you have to do is buy ONE present. That's it! You just click on the link, type in your credit card number and presto! Why didn't we ever think of this before? All that running around at the last minute to find a pair of gloves for your niece that are probably exactly like the ones your Mom got her last year. Staying up till all hours Christmas Eve wrapping a bunch of presents you basically had to settle on because they didn't really have what you were looking for and who knows what people really want anyway. Having to explain each gift as it is opened so the recipient will understand why it is so perfect for them, because they once told you they liked dolphins and this sweater has dolphins on it, although they are actually bananas but they look like dolphins if dolphins were yellow...

No more!

This year we each got one present apiece and everything fit and was the right color and wasn't a duplicate of something they already had. I got the book I really wanted and it was great. Even though I knew I was going to get it, it was still fun to have it actually appear all wrapped and under the tree because I didn't know who I was going to get it from. That's the key to the Secret Santa system: you switch the surprise from the gift to the giver. And some of us went to great lengths to keep our secret identities secret. Secret wrapping paper, secret gift cards, misleading gift boxes, altered handwriting. It became a challenge to keep the secret right up until Christmas morning. And for some of us who can NEVER keep secrets (my Mom) the challenge was very great indeed. But everyone met the challenge and no Santa was revealed until all the presents were open. And although some were easy to guess (my sister Susan) others were far too crafty.

So not all change is for the worse. In the case of the modern Christmas, I think we have made a few improvements. We found out that buying a bunch of silly presents isn't as important everyone getting together and having fun. The gifts weren't the focus, it was just the idea of all of us being in the same place at the same time that made it feel like Christmas. The gifts were just excuses. We could easily have bought them for ourselves, but it was a lot more fun to do it this way. On the flight back home to L.A. I thought about how lucky we are to enjoy each other's company so much. After two weeks, I would think most families would be at each other's throats. But I was missing them already. I really loved spending time with my family.

And that was really the best present.

Happy New Year.