How to be a Sneaky Secret Santa
The internet is full of tips of how to figure out what gifts to buy for a workplace Secret Santa gift exchange, but there are not a lot of pages with advice on how to be a sneaky Secret Santa. That is, what if you want to put extra effort into hiding your identity as a Secret Santa or want to make the gift exchange itself more mysterious? This holiday season I felt like being a little extra sneaky in our Secret Santa gift exchange at my job. Here are some ideas of how to add a little ho, ho, ho to the average ho hum gift exchange:
The False Flag:
I did not set out to do anything special this year for our annual Secret Santa gift exchange. However, I became aware that one of my co-workers was disappointed that she had not yet received a gift from her secret Santa. Worse, she believed that I was the negligent party! I didn’t want her to believe that I had forgotten to give her a gift (over a week into the exchange), so I concocted the idea that I would give her a secret Santa gift- even though I was not her actual secret Santa. This spiraled into the idea that I should give a gift to another co-worker who had been pretty vocal about having been forgotten in the secret Santa exchange. From there, the idea grew even bigger…
The first rogue secret Santa gift to my coworker “S” was designed to be a false flag. Well, not in the very literal sense. A false flag is a an operation that is designed to appear that another group, organization, nation, etc. has carried out the action. In this case, I wanted to make it obvious that I was the person behind this Secret Santa gift. The idea is that by doing so, I would mask my other actions and confuse my ACTUAL secret Santa recipient into believing that I was “S”‘s secret Santa. I wanted S and my other coworkers to think that I was her Secret Santa even though I was not her actual secret Santa. It was false evidence meant to distract from my actual activities. While it does not quite fit the military or cyber definition of a false flag, I will use that term since I used my identity in one context to conceal or distract from my identity in the other context.
My first false gift involved a Scavenger Hunt to find two gifts hidden in my work place. This Scavenger Hunt comprised of a message left on her desk, a second clue with a gift, and a final gift hidden in a hard to find location. The clues in the Scavenger Hunt were written in three foreign languages and also provided GPS coordinates to the final gift. Since my coworkers know that I like to travel and that I also do geocaching as a hobby, the Scavenger Hunt was purposefully made to make them believe that I was the Secret Santa behind “S” ‘s gift. I think that this worked out pretty well since “S” sent a group email thanking the Secret Santa for the scavenger hunt and gift- which was helpful in making everyone aware of the ruse. My only regret was that the Scavenger Hunt may have been a little too difficult. It took two days to find the final gift (since reasonably most of my coworkers would not be able to use GPS to find a location in the workplace).
Big Idea: Pick someone to be your fake secret Santa gift recipient and provide obvious clues that you are the one behind this false gift. Better yet, provide clues that lead everyone to believe that another one of your co-workers is behind the gift!
Early on in my Secret Santa schemes, I enlisted a co-worker who works on the night shift with me to provide me with information and collaborate. I don’t often speak to all of my coworkers, but “C” the informant, is much more social and closer with them. She had a lot of great information that I would never have had access to. For instance, many of my coworkers had confided in her who they had been paired with in the Secret Santa gift exchange. I took notes based on her information (which helped me to plan my own actions). Aside from providing me with information, “C” helped me by writing notes for me. Obviously, I didn’t want to use my own handwriting when writing messages to the recipients of my gifts. Therefore, I had her write some of the notes for me. This was also useful as it might have led coworkers to believe that SHE was their Secret Santa (a distraction that benefited us both). Big Idea: Enlist a trusted coworker in the schemes. However, be careful, as they could spill the beans to your other coworkers!
There is always the chance that “C” would tell others about my Secret Santa shenanigans. To avoid that, I told her that I was “S”‘s Secret Santa. Since she had already told me the gift exchange pairs that she knew, I knew that she did not know who “S” ‘s real secret Santa was. So, I pretended to be “S” ‘s secret Santa when talking with “C” so that she would spread disinformation if she happened to tell others who I was paired with.
Big Idea: Strategically plant false information.
One of the challenges to being a secretive Santa is that workers have set schedules. I have a very predictable and repetitive schedule wherein I work for eight days on and six days off. Anyone with deductive reasoning can start to figure out who their secret Santa is or is not if they pay attention to work schedules. For instance, if a gift always appears in the morning or afternoon, there is a good chance that it is from someone working one of those shifts. If a gift only appears on weekdays after 10 am, it is easy to start to narrow down potential secret Santas. Because I have six days off, I had to be a little bit creative about what to do about the long stretch of days that I am not at work. I had two solutions to this, but I will only share one of them, which was the Dead Drop. Basically, on the last night of my stretch of shifts, I hid gifts within my work place. These had to be good hiding spots, as they would have to remain hidden for several days.
My first Dead Drop a hidden a gift card behind a poster in our office. The other hiding spot was in an empty metal dresser in the maintenance room. Finally, a third gift was hidden within our staff conference room. With the gifts hidden in the shelter, I could choose the time and day that the secret Santa gift recipients would learn of their gifts. This liberated me from relying on my work schedule. However, this meant that I had to create secret communication channels to let my co-workers know about their gifts.
Big Idea: Hide gifts to avoid reliance on a schedule or in-person exchanges.
Create Secret Communication Channels:
To inform the gift recipients of their hidden gifts, I had to create secret communication channels. The first one that I created was a fake email account. I used the fake email account to email “L” about the hidden gift card. I did this at noon on a day that I did not work. I figured that noon would be a good time, since as a night shift worker, she might conclude that I would be sleeping at that hour. Using the fake email account, I sent an email to her which provided the following clue:
She is the one with the cheerless eyes,
She is cloaked in porpoises,
But what is her purpose or plan?
There are many things that start with the letter P
Look beyond the painting,
Hiding behind Patricia Wyatt
You will find a surprise or a disappointment.
The clue was meant to lead her to the framed poster in the office, behind which the gift card was hidden.
This is a copy of the poster that we have hanging in the office.
Several days later, I used a friend’s phone to inform another gift recipient (N) that she would find the gift in the maintenance room. I felt that N would not be offended by getting a text from a mysterious number, since she seems like a pretty good sport. I would not advise this method for a coworker that you don’t know well or who is not as into the gift exchange, since they may feel violated by a mysterious text message from an unfamiliar phone number. In my case, N seemed pretty happy to be informed about the gift and intrigued rather than threatened. My friend has a phone number from out of the area, which added to the mystery. I made sure the friend immediately deleted the number from the phone and that it was someone that I could trust not to misuse the phone number.
Finally, I used my secret email to email my supervisor to make an announcement at the beginning of our staff meeting. The supervisor was told to announce that an anonymous source had informed her that there was a gift hidden in the conference room. Staff searched for the gift at the beginning of the staff meeting, which was turned over to the gift recipient, who also happened to be “N.” Again, using a fake email to email a supervisor is only advisable if the supervisor is a good sport and on board with the Secret Santa gift exchange. My supervisor happens to love the holidays and likes to coordinate the gift exchange, so I wasn’t too worried. The only downside was that my coworkers had a hard time finding the gift, so I had to pretend to help them find it (to avoid taking up too much meeting time).
Big Idea: Use a fake email, alternative phone, posted message, or other employees to create secret channels of communication.
As my Secret Santa operation evolved, I eventually decided that I would give gifts to all of my coworkers. Some would be elaborate, such as the scavenger hunt, hidden gifts, poems, anonymous letters, thoughtful cards, etc. Some would be low-key, such as small gifts that randomly appeared in staff mailboxes with nothing more than a note that it was from Secret Santa. I decided that I would try to give everyone a gift as a matter of fairness but also Data Smog. Data Smog is the idea that it is hard to determine what is true or false when there is too much information to sift through. By providing a lot of information and gifts to everyone, it would be hard for anyone to know which gifts were from a Secret Santa and which were from me, Rogue Secret Santa. In the last two weeks of my Secret Santa operation, I mostly gave out subtle, anonymous gifts. On Wednesdays, when all of the staff were gathered for a meeting, I chose to do a more elaborate gift exchange. Big Idea: A variety of information, including obvious clues that it was Rogue Secret Santa as well as subtle, anonymous gifts given without fanfare was meant to obscure my actions.
Puzzles, Poems, and Messages:
One of my favorite parts of my Secret Santa operation was devising a number of poems and messages for my coworkers. For instance, prior to our regular Wednesday meeting I baked two dozen cupcakes and set them on the table along with a typed message. The message told my coworkers to eat the cupcakes and that under some of them, they would find a letter that spelled out the name of the coworker whose gift was on the table. Everyone helped themselves to the cupcakes, eventually spelling out the letters in the co-worker’s name (which could be found on the bottom of the cupcake wrapper). The gift itself included a Finnish language Christmas card and a poem by the famous poet, A. Leppanen. There is no Finnish poet with this name. I wrote the poem, but attributed it to a fake Finnish poet. (The recipient of the gift had a Finnish background). I created several poems or rhymes during the course of my secret Santa operation. Each used a different style. For instance, when “L” complained that she had been forgotten by her secret Santa, I provided her a small gift and the following typed Haiku:
Forgotten no more. I was called out for neglect. Santa is Sorry
Aside from the techniques listed above, I tried to remain sneaky by keeping notes of my activities. This helped me to keep track of what I had done, who I had given gifts to, how they reacted, and plans for the future. This aided in the timing of my gift giving and make sure that no one was forgotten. I typically typed my messages to my coworkers, as this disguised my handwriting, but on two occasions I had other people write my messages (one was C-the informant, and the other was my housemate). I also used pre-made Secret Santa labels that I found on the internet, with one of my Secret Santa gift recipients. Generally, I tried to be consistent. For instance, I typically used decorated brown paper bags and printed labels for my gifts to N. Big Idea: Take notes to keep track of your activities, use a variety of styles of packaging and messaging. Avoid using your own handwriting.
My Rogue Santa activities did concern some staff. A few staff were worried that they had the wrong name in the exchange or were somehow doing the gift exchange wrong after mysterious gifts appeared from the Rogue Secret Santa. The panic meant that my supervisor had to send an email warning staff not to worry and that there were some pranksters in their midst. I genuinely enjoyed watching as the staff discovered their gifts, especially if they liked them. I also enjoyed some conversations with staff. For instance, one of my coworkers told me about a poem and gift card she had received. She was convinced that they came from B., our supervisor. I had to laugh a little to myself. I also enjoyed doing little things such as hiding bags of candy under the seats of my coworkers before a staff meeting and making them the cupcakes. My actual Secret Santa recipient did not know that I was her Secret Santa! So that was also fun. The main drawback is that I can only be a Rogue Secret Santa once! Next year, if I do anything tricky, they will all know that it is me! Another drawback is that because I bought at least a small item for each of my coworkers, it was a costly little operation. While I won’t be playing the role of a Rogue Secret Santa next year, hopefully this list of ideas inspires someone else to make Christmas a covert operation.