Building employee morale on a $25 budget.

A couple years back, I wrote a very helpful article on getting the most out of your Secret Santa experience.

And I thought I was done with that topic.

Apparently not.

I’m not sure how Secret Santa works at your company or organization, but here at AKHIA, it is HUUUUUUGE!

We have 60 people working here. 47 of us did Secret Santa this year. The other 13 I can only imagine cite Hannibal Lecter as a hero and probably hate rainbows, despise the laughter of children and sat stone-faced when Bing Bong died in “Inside Out.” (SPOILER ALERT!)

The biggest Secret Santa fan out of our 47 joiners (“The Cool People”), and maybe in the whole world, is Ben Brugler, the company president.

Now, one can only speculate why Ben loves Secret Santa so much. Maybe he never got a gift as a child and is overcompensating today. Maybe he just doesn’t like work and will do anything to avoid it. Regardless, Secret Santa at AKHIA goes to a whole new DEFCON-1 level. But DEFCON-1 in a good way.

What’s great about Secret Santa at AKHIA is the natural way people here are so damn nice about it. We start giving each other tiny presents and suddenly we’re all like Chick-fil-A® employees.

What’s also great about it is how seriously they take both the “Secret” and the “Santa” aspect of it.

First, the Secret.

Let it be known that you’d be better off getting caught spitting in someone’s coffee than being caught by your “giftee” dropping off his or her Secret Santa gift. That happened to me once a couple years back (not the coffee thing, as far as I know. The other thing.). It was the first day of Secret Santa; I arrive ridiculously early—about 6:30 a.m.—in the empty office. I snuck into the kitchen to drop off a gift, turned back around to tiptoe away and nearly bump into, you guessed it, my giftee. Like, what are the odds? I played it really cool. “Hi Brittany,” my voice cracking like I was 13 years old again, “I’m just here to, uh, find a thing, for uh, something. Look over there! A pterodactyl!” Then I hauled ass outta there feeling like a complete idiot. Five seconds into Secret Santa, and I got pinched. FML.

Since then, I’ve learned there are tricks of the trade in being secretive, but plenty of debate at AKHIA as to what tricks are approved and which are frowned upon. For example, we have the FUNDAMENTALISTS, who believe you must drop the gift off at the recipient’s desk.  Anything less is akin to brushing your teeth in a holy water font on Easter Sunday. (Which come to think of it, is there a typeface font called “Holy Water”? We may be on to something here.)

However, to be a FUNDAMENTALIST takes omnipotent power most non-stalkers and sentient beings just don’t have. It’s hard to be productive at work when you need to keep watch on your giftee all day, waiting for the moment they leave to get coffee, use the restroom, go out for a smoke or run weeping from their desk. So a lot of people are DROPPERS, who just leave a gift somewhere in the same time zone as the recipient’s desk, as if that’s good enough. “I left her gift in the server room. She’ll find it eventually.”

Something like that happened to me this year. My first Secret Santa gift was in the supply closet. So if I weren’t such a kleptomaniac for pens, Post-it notes and packing tape, I’d have never found my gift bucket of Diet Mountain Dew. By the way, thanks, Secret Santa for the gift. It enabled me to write this article in 12 minutes.

See, I’m neither a FUNDAMENTALIST or a DROPPER. I’m somewhere in between. I guess that makes me Secret Santa AGNOSTIC. Or LUTHERAN. I’ll do my best to leave a gift on the desk, but if I can’t do that, I will keep it within about ten feet. It’s like the opposite of a restraining order. In my mind Secret Santa shouldn’t be a hunt for the recipient. It should be work for the giver.

Regardless, it is a victory for the Secret Santa when, at the big reveal (which we have at the AKHIA Holiday Party, or AHP by which is it not at all known) their giftee fails to make the right guess. And it is a victory for the giftee if they guess their Secret Santa correctly. So it’s quite the battle. 47 little battles.

The Santa.

One thing that’s so wonderful at AKHIA is that every gift comes with a public thank-you. We have a Secret Santa email group, and the moment you receive a gift, you send a message to that group saying how much you loved that gift. So it’s repeated appreciation on a massive scale. And it reminds some people that, “Jeez, I haven’t gotten a gift yet and we’re ten days into this thing.”

The responses have taken on a similar, but genuine, theme.

Some examples:

 “It was so nice to come back to the office with a gift at my desk. Thank you so much for the adorable ornament with a picture from our wedding! Now to decide which one of our trees to hang these on. Can’t wait to find out who you are!!”

 “Thanks, SS, for my gift card to Jimmy’s John’s….how did you know I order from them every day??”

“This gift is absolutely adorable! The apricot ginger candle smells amazing, the trinket tray is soooo cute and the notebook is beautiful! Secret Santa, you have outdone yourself! I have no idea who you are, but I’m so grateful for these lovely gifts you have left for me.”

 “Thanks once again for a great gift! This calendar is purrrrfect :) And the Paper Source wrapping paper was too cute. How did you know I love all things from that store?”

As you can see, people are grateful, and the gifts show we really know each other pretty well. The thank-yous almost always have some variation of the “you know how much I like X.” Recipients here are so polite, I bet if the gift was a paper clip, the response would be, “How did you know I love clipping papers together? I will use this paper clip on important documents, for sure! Can’t wait to pick which one! Thanks!!!”

But…the gift you buy can’t be too personal. Then it may get uncomfortable. Like if you gave someone (call her Joan) a framed picture of her sitting at home, reading a book on the couch, as shown from outside Joan’s window from a telephoto lens. Or that picture is part of a photo montage with images of Joan brushing her teeth, driving to work, getting coffee at Starbucks, her kids getting on the school bus, and so on. And if the accompanying note is just the lyrics to “Every Breath You Take,” and if you drop it on their desk in a manila envelope, you might soon be crossing “restraining order” off your bucket list.

The Reveal

Picking the Pope is less intensive than the AKHIA Secret Santa Reveal. As mentioned before, we do the Reveal at the AKHIA Holiday Party (AHP, stop trying to make AHP happen), and it takes place in mid-December, which gives us just enough time to finish all the Reveals by Christmas. Ben hosts the festivities, and with microphone in hand he’s our Ryan Seacrest mixed with Chelsea Handler, moderating the guesses with good looks, sincerity, diplomacy and hilarious wisecracks that remind us all that he is truly a god among men (edited, b.brugler).

Secret Santa, for all its self-imposed pressures, really reveals what kind of dysfunctional family we are at AKHIA. A happy one, and one that wants to make each other happy too, where we have everyone’s backs, where we care, where we sneak around to bring joy with gifts that are store-bought or handmade.

And now that it’s over for another year, we can look back on that joy and look ahead to Secret Santa 2017. Only 350 days away.