The philosophical case against Secret Santa

Gift-giving creates a complex web of reciprocity.
Gift-giving creates a complex web of reciprocity.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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If the point of the holiday season is to spread happiness and good cheer, Secret Santa traditions are a terrible idea. Just think about the top 40 Secret Santa gifts from Good Housekeeping Magazine this year: shimmering slippers, personalized pouches, 750ml wine glasses, and—the number one recommendation—an iridescent planter “so her greenery will still look beautiful even if she hasn’t quite kept up with watering.” Whoever receives such gifts is also probably smart enough to throw them out. Yet each year, office workers face the pressure to act happy about gifts they probably don’t want or need, and to find a gift for someone whose deepest desires they can’t even begin to imagine—all for $15 or less.

There’s a long history of protesting against this kind of exchange. In 1925, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss explained the problem in his book The Gift: Presents are supposed to be voluntary, but in reality, they create a system of obligation. In ancient Maori law, Mauss writes, when you accept a gift, you accept part of another person’s soul. To accept is to perpetuate the spirituality of another being, and you have a responsibility to continue this cycle. Refusing to give a present of your own, or refusing to accept a gift, is declaring war, since you’re snubbing the relationship.

While we might reject the spirituality of such ancient traditions, the sentiment remains: Gift-giving creates a complex web of reciprocity—one that’s not only imposed by individuals, but rather created and enforced by society.

This is part of the madness of giving, as French philosopher Jacques Derrida proposes. More specifically, Derrida suggests, we assume that generosity is a good thing, but tend to overlook the fact that gifts can be poisonous too. If something is given in return, or if we expect a countergift, then it’s not actually a gift; it’s an exchange. A gift, to truly be a gift, should not generate an obligation. Not only can it inflict harm when it throws the recipient into debt, but when it’s reciprocated, it can wipe out the initial act of generosity. In its most extreme form, “this madness,” Derrida argues, “manages to eat away at language itself,” because when a gift turns into a trade or a power play, the meaning of the gift crumbles.

The obligatory nature of Secret Santa exemplifies these problems. The fact of it being secret is a step in the right direction, if reciprocity operates anonymously. But it still creates an exchange economy in which individuals are expected to partake. To deviate from this practice is to stray from the pack, disrupting the cohesiveness of the community. It’s tantamount to creating a rift in the fabric of the social ecosystem, the cost of which is at best scorn, and at worst, being outcast from the group. Imagine turning up at a holiday party without a gift for Secret Santa: You’ve got “not a team player” written all over you. Mauss proposes that the unreciprocated gift makes the person who receives it inferior. It’s a sad state of affairs if our system of gifting devolves into power games and fuels vicious cycles of debts.

Ideally, we would free ourselves from this madness. But traditions are hard to break. For my own recent Secret Santa, I seriously considered a number of alternative options: Calling in sick, turning up empty-handed, or sealing $15 into a festive envelope. I decided against it, since to do so would be to reject the sentiment of big-heartedness that the ritual is supposed to encourage.

So, on the way to the holiday party, I picked up cherry blossom-scented hand cream. The potential cost of not playing this game is much more than $15, and I embraced the tyranny of my lovable herd. “Happy holidays,” I bleated on arrival. My smile was nonetheless genuine. Secret Santa may represent the worst of gift-giving, but I’m happy to be part of this flock.