Every year my company hosts a minimum of two or three separate Christmas parties. There is the formal affair, which is held a few weeks beforehand, at various fancy off-site establishments, with staff from both offices. It is the one time a year when everyone meets face to face, and after two years, there are still unfamiliar faces. Then on the last day before the holiday, each office has a Secret Santa potluck.
When the sign-up sheet was posted in the kitchen last year, I casually ignored it. I am generally opposed to Secret Santa type gift swaps on environmental grounds. In my experience, people are buying for recipients they don't know very well, with spending guidelines that pretty much guarantee that everyone just trades crap that no one wants. But my boss who organizes the party is really into the fun social aspect of it, and when she came around to my desk with sign-up sheet I succumbed to the pressure.
It turns out the culture of this particular gift exchange leans even more heavily towards useless garbage than most. The gifts are supposed to be stupid, or comical, or humiliating. [An example is a whole line of "Boss Lady" toiletries someone purchased for one of the partners last year, which was all packaged in pink, but had a manly scent. Racy calendars are also a recurring theme.]
Because it was "secret," I wasn't exposed as the guilty party, but the gift I purchased, a Rishi fair trade organic tea gift set with a ceramic diffuser, was roundly dismissed as being "too nice." It must have been a new person. Luckily there were several of us new people, including my recipient, who seemed quite pleased with her gift. She came and thanked me privately later -- she figured out it was me because there aren't many of us tea drinkers there, plus the aforementioned newbie failure to buy a gag gift. The funny thing is, she had drawn my name, and bought me organic lotion and lip gloss, another gift dismissed as unworthy by the old timers.
This year I decided to opt out.
With several successful performance reviews under my belt, I figured I should have enough personal capitol and recognizable value by now to escape the obligatory gift exchange. I still brought a dish to pass and attended the party, socializing and watching co-workers open their embarrassing gifts. It was much more enjoyable for me this year without the stress of the dreaded gift exchange. As the party was wrapping up, the partners passed out merit-based bonus checks, a welcome uncertainty in these times. [My company has not been immune to this economic downturn: our health care rates will skyrocket in January, and several co-workers have been laid off or had their hours dramatically cut back.]
Most staff leave shortly after the party peters out, but I returned to my desk for another hour and a half of work, trying to wrap something up I am scheduled to work on next week. When I was leaving at 5:30 pm, the only other people left were partners. As I was putting on my coat and getting ready to leave, I went around to say goodbye and personally thank each partner.
I was in Party Organizer Boss's office when Boss Lady Recipient Partner came in with her coat to say goodbye, too. We all ended up walking out together. They started lamenting how there seemed to be less participation this year in both the Secret Santa and the potluck. Since they knew I didn't participate in the gift exchange, but the food all gets lost together on one big table, I was quick to point out in my defense that at least I brought a dish to pass. Redemption of sorts? That was my hope. Then Party Organizer Partner joked that perhaps they should tie Secret Santa participation to the bonuses.
While it was just a joke, the comment gave me pause. Obviously I know enough to keep my big mouth shut and not tell my bosses what I really think of these gift exchanges. But is that enough? Are there political consequences to opting out? What do you think? Do I have to suck it up and participate in future Secret Santas for reasons of professional development?
I hope everyone has a terrific holiday season, and if you are celebrating Christmas today, that it is very Merry indeed!