Constable: No 'War on Christmas,' but Secret Santa has some critics

  • Known for his annual gift-giving, Santa Claus has remained popular for decades. The Secret Santa tradition of giving gifts anonymously at offices and the like tends to be more controversial.

    Known for his annual gift-giving, Santa Claus has remained popular for decades. The Secret Santa tradition of giving gifts anonymously at offices and the like tends to be more controversial. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Updated 12/15/2015 3:32 PM

I like secrets, which I'm pretty good at keeping. I like Santa, whom I staunchly defended in my youth against the cynical, nonbelieving majority of first-graders on my school bus.

But I'm not a fan of Secret Santa in the workplace.


Part of that comes from my liberal fear of offending people. I don't want to make Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists and other non-Christians feel forced to play along in a Christian tradition and buy a Christmas gift, or opt out of an office function because of their religions. It's also possible the Secret Santa will offend devout Christians who aren't thrilled about everyone celebrating the public domain fun part of Christmas without having to profess a belief in Jesus or his dad, let alone go to church on Christmas Eve.

Refusing a request to take part in Secret Santa is the equivalent of refusing to like a co-worker's online post of his or her adorable puppy video. The last time I participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange was years ago. I remember the gift was a six-pack of beers from around the world. I am not sure if an editor gave me the beer or I gave the beer to an editor, but I remember the gift going over well. Giving alcohol these days is a bit risky. Presenting a surprise bottle of booze to someone who just got a 30-day sobriety pin could be problematic. And if the person drank it on the way home and got into an accident, visions of lawsuits would be dancing is everyone's heads.

Food gifts also are tricky. Giving a gluten-laden box of delicious cookies to a person with celiac disease is just rubbing it in. A pecan roll could kill a co-worker with a nut allergy. A spiced cheese ball might trigger a relapse for someone struggling with weight issues. Buying a gift too personal (perfume or a push-up bra) is a mistake. Buying a gift too wacky (Sea-Monkeys or a Mr. T air-freshener) might not be appreciated. Spend too little (a "Martin O'Malley for President" calendar) or spend too much (a Hammacher Schlemmer "Millennium Falcon" drone), and that's also a problem.

Critics can point out flaws in the tradition, but Secret Santa is far from endangered and has lots of friends in high places.

Early this month, the University of Tennessee's Office of Diversity and Inclusion urged people to avoid Secret Santa and other customs that make holiday parties appear to be "Christmas in disguise." The state's highest-ranking Republicans fired back with harsh criticism for the "political correctness" and threatened to cut the diversity office's funding. The diversity folks retreated, issuing a revised statement that blubbered: "While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity."

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The idea that businesses have abandoned Secret Santa "isn't true at all, not at all," says Peter Imburg, who founded an online Secret Santa site called Elfster in 2004.

"I would say that it is something on the rise," Imburg says. "With Elfster, we've seen tremendous growth this year. We've seen growth every year including about 30 to 40 percent this year."

The website sets up a Secret Santa gift exchange and allows people to post a wish list of gifts they want, indicate gifts they don't want, set spending limits and allow for anonymous communication between the giver and the recipient. A few similar sites also can be found online.

"Today, I don't think its clearly a Christian experience. It's open to all people," Imburg says of Secret Santa, which he calls "a label for an anonymous gift exchange."


The folks at participate in two handmade gift exchanges a year.

"It doesn't hurt at all to be sensitive to how it's perceived," Imburg says of Secret Santa programs. "But I think the concept of doing something fun and that promotes generosity … that's something that resonates with people."

I'd still feel more comfortable defending Santa before an audience of doubting first-graders.

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