Faculty at St. Mary’s College of Maryland are responding this week to the concerns of parents about a recent trend of anonymous gift-giving parties taking place on campus. Since the beginning of December, Public Safety, with the help of local police, have shut down seven of these so-called gift exchanges, and made several arrests. Yet they still have no explanation for why the epidemic started so suddenly.
This popular youth fad, known by its street name “Secret Santa,” but also sometimes called “Polyanna” or “Amigo Secreto” south of the border, involves a group gathering together and putting their names into a hat or bowl. “One of the dangers of this fad is that it creates this sense of group responsibility,” says Dr. Michael Hernandez, an expert in young adult psychology. “You feel obligated to do it because everyone else is doing it, and they’re all telling you that if one person backs out it’s going to ‘mess up’ the exchange.” Once they’ve put their names in, kids randomly select a name, sometimes a complete stranger, from the bowl. Investigations show this creates an initial adrenaline buzz that is then intensified by buying or making this person a thoughtful gift. By not informing the person who is giving whom a gift, students can delay gratification, creating a big rush when they at last gather and reveal the gifts they are giving and receiving.
“It’s scary how easy it is to get caught up,” one Public Safety Officer commented. “Kids go in thinking they’ll just experiment a little, buy someone candy or a bargain bin movie, and it’ll be no big deal. Next thing they know, they’re spending upwards of 25 minutes on Amazon trying to figure out something that won’t make you look like an uncaring dick compared with everyone else’s thoughtful gifts.”
These facts pale, though, in comparison to the frightening statistic of enormous risk people who do Secret Santa have of “OD’ing,” a shorthand for “overdoing.”
“I’d never seen anything like it,” said Tanijah Williams, who is currently doing her residency at Lexington Park General Walmart. “This kid came in, he’d gotten the name of a girl he had a crush on. His friends were with him, wheeling the cart, and they told us he’d taken 30, maybe 40 dollars, that’s nearly twice the amount a person his age can handle. He knew she liked The Hunger Games, so he was trying to get her one of those Katniss pins, but not the cheap plastic ones, one of those collectible kinds they sell in magazines that they make out of freaking gold or whatever. I was at the checkout, trying my best to keep him calm while he stood there rummaging through his pockets, pulling out loose change wherever he could find it. There were coins everywhere. All just to impress a girl. I wish I could forget that day, but I know I never will.”
For many students, getting involved means staying involved, whether they want to or not. Young people are often reluctant to talk about their SS experiences with others, out of fear that they will reveal their gift receiver. This makes breaking through to a person involved in Secret Santa especially difficult. In describing her experience, recovering Secret Santa participant Renee Carlson spoke about her fear of her family finding out. “I’ve always told my mom everything, but for the first time in my life I couldn’t bring myself to be honest,” said a teary-eyed Renee. “I had chosen my best friend’s name, and I was terrified if I told her the truth, she would call her mom and give it all away. The only people I could talk to were my other friends in Secret Santa, and they always told me to keep my mouth shut or I would mess it up.”
The Board of Trustees is holding an open forum for parents and students to voice their concern, during which they will field questions about the new get-tough policy on Secret Santa. This response has prompted ire of some students, who resent the so-called “policing” of families and administration. “I truly don’t see what the problem is,” said sophomore John Merritt. “Nobody has ever ruined their life doing Secret Santa. I’m sure most of our parents did Secret Santas when they were in college too. My uncle is an engineer, and he even does it at work. Plus it’s legal in Amsterdam, I went there on my winter break.”
Perhaps this may be true for some, but for the mother of Ambrose Green, a student at Oberlin College when he had his Secret Santa experience, this kind of statement reflects the attitude that changed her son’s life forever one December evening. “He’d never done Secret Santa before, he thought it would be fun. He got his Secret Santa a giant Hershey’s kiss, it seemed like it was going great. Then he got to the party, gave his gift, and what did he get? Nothing. His Secret Santa had forgotten to get him anything. And the people who had got him into this, who claimed to be his friends? They just stood by. I could barely recognize him the next time I saw him. The look in his eyes…was pure irritation.” Though it is too late for Ambrose, Mrs. Green is hopeful the increasing attentiveness of parents will prevent future tragedies.
In the meanwhile, campus security will be on the alert for signs of Secret Santas on campus. If you see someone displaying the signs of doing Secret Santa, which include secretive behavior, stress, and participation in group activities, please contact Public Safety immediately.
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