Big Smile, No Teeth: Strange gifts of the Secret Santa

  • Living
  • Monday, 24 Dec 2018

Christmas shopping has never been this interesting and bizarre ...

The holiday season is here! And that means we’re all probably taking part in a lot of Secret Santa-type gift exchanges. Which means we’re giving and receiving a lot of crap.

Secret Santa, in case you don’t know what it is, is the practice of exchanging gifts anonymously; names of the people involved are drawn from a pool and you have to get a gift for the person you draw, and you’ll also get something from someone in the pool. It’s very well known in North America but does operate in other countries under different names. It’s called Julklapp in Scandinavia, for instance; though in that tradition you leave a gift on someone’s doorstep and run away, presumably screaming “You just got julklapped!”.

OK, I added that last part.

But Secret Santa is also a tradition here in Asia where I’ve participated in it twice this year and though I appreciate the idea of gift giving, in practice secret Santa is the source of a lot of unwanted crap.

I know this because I’ve received and given said crap.

It’s not my fault! And it’s not anyone else’s fault! The way the game works is that people buy little gifts for others, usually in their work place, so they don’t know them that well, and the budget for each gift is set fairly low – so no one goes out and spends a thousand bucks buying a luxury watch while in turn receiving a mug that says “Who likes coffee? This guy!” with an arrow pointing up.

But there’s the problem.

The budgets are so low, the people we’re buying for such unknown commodities, that we end up going to those little souvenir type stores that spring up in the holiday season to sell novelty mugs and refrigerator magnets shaped like buttocks to buy something for our Secret Santa.

That’s where I ended up eventually purchasing the most useful things I could for the budget I had. One was a top for an oil bottle that was shaped like a genie’s lamp and helped narrow the stream of oil you pour. Useful? Possibly, if you’re the sort that drizzles a lot of olive oil.

My next purchase was a pie slice server that scooped the slice of pie up and then you push your thumb forward and the server has a little bulldozer on it that pushes the pie onto your plate. Useful? Not so much, as getting pie off serving utensils isn’t really one of the bigger problems in the world today. I suppose watching the little bulldozer push your pie onto your plate will be amusing for about 0.7 seconds – so enjoy that. It was the best I could do!

Everything else was goofy key chains, decorative notepads, novelty socks.

There’s a whole industry out there to produce kitschy garbage so we can stay in our RM30 Secret Santa budget and have something for people to unwrap at the company Christmas party.

For myself, I received a little device that is clearly ripping off Gameboy – a prized possession from my childhood – and basically has all the video games from my youth readily available on it.

I was actually excited, but then I tried playing Contra – a side scrolling action game where you mostly jump over bullets and shoot diagonally at stationary soldiers – and realised how boring the video games of my youth were. Sorry, games of my childhood!

Now I’m seriously considering re-gifting this faux Gameboy, if only because it’s going to rot in it’s cheap plastic case sitting on a shelf somewhere otherwise. I just have to find someone who hasn’t played video games in 20 years and still longs for the 2D paradise of 1990s’ analogue games with their midi sound tracks and pixelated graphics. Yeah, I’m not finding anyone to take this gift am I?

Anyway, I hope my Secret Santa’s are enjoying the ease with which they can pour oil and bulldoze pie onto plates. I’m starting to the think the best gift to give in Secret Santa is just cash.

Avid writer Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at and check out his stuff at

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