Her junior year in college, Herself belonged to a certain social group. Based in a large house that had amenities including a dining room, a computer room, a TV room, a few pool tables in the basement, and various places to sit, the students of this group would generally eat, hang out, and/or study together. They were a motley bunch of individuals, but generally were studious, pleasant, and quite fun.
When Christmas approached that year, various students decided to organize a "Secret Santa" party. All those who wished to participate put their names into a hat; then, each drew out the name of an individual for whom they were to provide a gift as Secret Santa. Over the course of a week or two, a mound of presents -- some lumpy, some oddly wrapped, and some beautifully arranged -- appeared under the house Christmas tree. Herself added her carefully-selected present to the pile.
When it came time for the Christmas party, one of the group's members (a large and jolly student) dressed as Santa Claus, and a party was held. Herself had the privilege of serving as Santa's Elf. She wore her festive hat, and ferried presents from under the tree to Santa, who would call out the name of the individual to whom the present belonged. Many of the students cheerfully sat on Santa's lap to unwrap their gifts. Some of the presents were serious: a pen with the school's logo. Other presents were less so: the elephant-shaped g-string presented to Santa himself, who modeled it over his Santa suit to the delight of everyone. There was much merriment.
The pile of presents decreased steadily until there were only a handful left. Herself gathered the last of the packages and realized that whoever had drawn her name for the Secret Santa party had not come through: there was no present for her. She was stricken.
She wondered for a brief moment which of the people who had gladly received his or her own present was her Secret Santa. She did not know who her Secret Santa was; she could not imagine that any of the people in the room would deliberately go out of their way to try to hurt her by not providing a present for her. She couldn't take her Secret Santa's failure personally. The big question was: how to gracefully escape? If she had been solely an audience member, she could have easily hidden among the rest of the partygoers, and no one would have known that her Santa had failed. But she was elf. There was no way to hide.
After the last present had been distributed, the crowd began chanting, "Elf! Elf! Elf!" in the expectation that Herself would have the privilege of being the last one to sit on Santa's lap to open her own gift. All eyes were upon her; yet there was nothing she could say. She hurriedly shook her head at Santa Claus and busied herself with the cleanup of stray bits of wrapping paper. The crowd's chants fell away, and the students gradually began talking among themselves and moving away to the dining room in search of snacks. She finished tidying and went back to her dorm alone.
The next day, there was a present labeled for her at her station where she sat to check the meal cards. She could tell by the handwriting and the wrapping paper that it was a gift from a warm-hearted and generous friend of hers, who had witnessed the Secret Santa party and had understood what had happened. It was extremely kind of her friend. Somehow, though, it was not quite the same as a Secret Santa present.
Christmas can be a very isolating time. There may be inadvertent (or even deliberate) exclusion from one's social group; there are distances from family and friends, both in time and in space; there are memories of loved ones gone, of innocence lost, of expectations dashed, of hopes unrealized. It can be difficult. Nevertheless, we can find joy in the moment. Even if there is no gift right now for us, we can still be Santa's Elves, ferrying presents both literal and metaphorical to those around us. We can make a difference. And we will.
Merry Christmas, from me to you.
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