My deepest, darkest secret (Santa)

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There are plenty of straightforward reasons to love gift-giving.

It’s your way of showing people how important they are to you. You browse the Internet, wander the shops or even better, hand-make a gift, pondering your loved one’s interests and passions. You try to translate those into something wrappable, and you realize how good it feels to think about your favorite people. And when you get a gift back, it’s nice to know that somebody is thinking about you, too. From start to finish, it’s about making people happy. And that’s awesome.  

But there’s also more to it than that.

Every year, when the holidays roll around, I enlist myself in as many “Secret Santa” gift exchanges as I can create from distinct groups of friends. One with my friends in high school, one with the improv team, one with my friends at the newspaper and one with my roommates.

I’ve thought about why I love gift exchanges so much. Part of it is the mystery that surrounds it all, but there’s also a certain kind of holiday magic that comes with being a part of something. Especially now that I’m in college, each gift exchange has meant something different to me and has reflected the ways in which people have impacted me during my time here.

Though embarking upon college was monumental, it didn’t make me miss my high school friends any less, and we were suddenly spread out all across the country. Staying in touch quickly became a challenge —  one that I resented. After four years of my squad defining my sense of belonging, it felt wrong to me that we weren’t a central part of each other’s lives anymore.

So, in an effort to reconnect, we planned a gift exchange. We found the one day over winter break that everyone was free, sat in a circle on my bedroom floor and handed each other gifts.

The real gift however, was the gift of catching up. We sat there for several hours, regaling each other with all of our experiences from the first semester of college. And it felt like we had never really been apart after all.

When I moved into my suite in Foothill on the first day of freshman year, I was already daunted by the task of meeting new people and making new friends. I had kept the same best friends for the past four years — a few of them even longer than that — so I was more than a little rusty in getting to know people. Foothill’s reputation for being antisocial didn’t help matters, either.

But friends found me, and to my good fortune, they kept me. By October, we were a fairly solidified group of seven, and we would often joke about how even after only a few weeks, it felt like we had been best friends for ages. Lengthy debates in the dining hall, late night TV binges and constantly changing group chat nicknames have a way of forming powerful bonds — bonds that lead to our first gift exchange as a group.

I wear the bright, colorful fuzzy socks I received during that Secret Santa almost constantly, and each time I don a pair it reminds me of how lucky I was to have found the people that I did. A few months later, I would pack up those socks in a suitcase for the move from Foothill to the new apartment that we share together.

Freshman year was an eye-opening experience, one that challenged nearly everything I had been taught, both about the way the world works and what I thought about myself. In particular, I was forced to confront my attitudes toward drinking and smoking — activities I had considered synonymous with corruption and debauchery but now was surrounded by. Everybody was doing it, and at the time, it felt like a bombshell, like realizing my moral compass had actually been pointing south this whole time. Some of my other friends, many of them older than myself, took note of my turmoil and were quick to take it upon themselves to offer me guidance.

I went to parties with them, and I watched with a perplexed fascination as they clinked shot glasses and captivated all who would listen with riveting sexual encounters. Perhaps it was some strange form of desensitization, but watching them calmed the feelings of being overwhelmed that lead to so much self-doubt. It was all new to me — but no longer uncomfortably so.

When we did our gift exchange, I received a bottle of Charles Shaw red wine, a pack of condoms and a joint. And I realized I didn’t have to be scared of the things that I shied away from in high school.

This year, I’ve got three gift exchanges on my docket already, and truthfully, I don’t have a clue what I’m going to get a single one of the names on my list. But I hope that the gifts I give mean as much to someone else as I know their gifts will mean to me.

Exchanging gifts is you creating families for yourself. You might be far from home, or feel like you don’t belong, but you’re part of so many more experiences than you realize. Even when your “real family” can’t be there, college is about discovering all the things that you love — or, more specifically, all the people you love.

Somebody has drawn your name from a hat and is thinking of you.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].