A Secret Santa Story
The Secret Santa deal most offices embrace at Christmas has never struck me as anything more than the gift exchange we did in grade school. Back then, the teacher put the names of the kids in a bowl, and we chose a name randomly. I honestly can only remember one gift from those days. In third grade, Miss Marrow had made a huge difference in my life. That was a tough year for me. Miss Marrow knew this and went out of her way to be kind. She encouraged my reading and allowed me to actually take books home. I met Winnie the Pooh that year and the characters from Wind in the Willows. So, since I knew Santa would not bring many gifts, I had high hopes for the gift exchange. We were to spend no more than $.50 on our gifts. In 1960, $.50 bought neat stuff.
I remember carefully choosing something for whoever’s name I’d picked and wrapping it using ribbon to decorate the package. I waited with excitement to receive my gift during our class party having seen whatever I had chosen had put a big smile on the recipient’s face. Miss Marrow handed me my gift and my young heart sank. My family had little extra money. The steelworkers had been on strike for months and any extra that Dad earned hauling coal or doing odd jobs for other families went to my sister. She was in her last year of nursing school and her books cost so much extra, she needed the money. However, as in most places, even the kids from pretty poor families knew kids from really poor families. I knew Hazel Birchess and that her family could not afford even $.50. When I opened my gift to find a pair of socks, I knew my face had not lit up. Socks! What kid wants a pair of socks when everyone else had puzzles or little stuffed animals or toy trucks or coloring books? I looked up and saw Hazel watching my expression. I gazed back at the socks and realized they had lace around the tops. A tomboy to the core, I didn’t wear lace anywhere on my body if I could help it, but I understood to Hazel the pink socks with white lace were beautiful.
“Thank you, Hazel,” I said.
Then Jill Martin, one of the town’s rich kids yelled, “Look! Twana only got socks!”
Poor Hazel’s face flamed red. I moved my chair closer to hers and said, “I like these. Know what is neat about socks?”
“No, except they keep your feet warm and when they don’t have holes in them, they feel soft,” she answered.
We might have been poor and my socks often had holes in them, but my mother’s tidy soul made sure she mended the holes. I felt sorry for Hazel. I guessed her mother who worked hard because her daddy got drunk and couldn’t hold a job didn’t have time to mend socks for her kids.
I grinned at Hazel and said, “Yeah, they do keep my feet warm, but they also can be hand puppets.”
I slipped them over my hands and one spoke in a squeaky voice, “Hey, Janey! I heard Mickie Mouse has a new girlfriend!”
My left hand answered with a lisp, “No, sir! Minnie is his true love.”
For a few minutes I made up a play featuring my right hand and my left hand covered by pink socks. Hazel’s laughter and giggles made me happy I had done something so silly.
When I left the room that day, Miss Marrow drew me aside, “I have a little gift for you. Put it in your bag and don’t let anyone else know.”
I ran to my room when I got home and ripped the paper off Miss Marrow’s gift. She had given me a book. I hugged it to my chest and thought many thanks toward my teacher.
I know I had many other gift exchanges through my years in school and even in college, but that year is the clearest. I suspect it’s not so much because I was so disappointed by the socks, but more that I managed to be kind to a kid no one had much time for.
I rejoice that I never have had to be a Secret Santa. Cheap candy or smelly hand lotion are tough items to turn into an impromptu play. Today, though, I saw a Secret Santa with the soul of the real guy, or maybe one who keeps God’s gift to the world as central, can make a real difference.
Most of us have been so sad over the past days, knowing in a little town in Connecticut, twenty children are not giggling over their toys from the gift exchange. Adults who are heroes won’t exchange Secret Santa gifts. These thoughts accompany me everywhere.
I needed to have blood work done at a lab in the kidney specialist’s office. I had put it off for several days just because I was tired of needles and being poked. I had an appointment with another doctor on the same street, though, and made myself go up to the lab.
When I walked in the door, I subconsciously noted how warm and happy the room seemed, not the norm for labs in my experience. I took my seat and handed Pamela my paperwork and saw a sign from her Secret Santa.
“Your floors may not be clean, but your room is happier. Your Secret Santa
I looked at the room more closely. The walls were a lovely lavender color; the many notices skillfully pinned over interesting scrapbooking paper looked great. Despite the vials and tubes and needles, the small room offered comfort and peace.
“Did your Secret Santa paint your room?” I asked.
Pamela lit up. “Whoever it is did that. Can you imagine? He or she moved all my furniture and painted this in my favorite color, then prettied up my notices. When I came in yesterday, here it was!”
Tears filled my eyes as I saw such a magnificent gift. Someone had given up a weekend to undertake the task. In doing so, whoever it was didn’t just make Pamela’s life sweeter, but gave a gift of comfort to everyone who will go in to have blood drawn.
We’ve all heard the adage: “the gift that keeps on giving”. When I saw the huge smile on Pamela’s face and then those on her co-workers’s faces as she shared my response, I knew the Secret Painting Santa had done that: given a gift that will keep on giving.
So, to whoever this person was: thank you.
Thank you for making Pamela happy. Thank you for making a room that causes fraught emotions seem sweeter and safer. Thank you for showing an understanding of what a meaningful gift is. Thank you, Pamela, for understanding what it means to accept a gift gracefully.
And, belatedly, thanks, Hazel, for the pink, laced-trimmed socks. You taught me a special lesson and it has stuck with me for over fifty years.