"Oh! Can we buy those fuzzy socks?"
"Sweetie, no, they're garish and you don't need -- "
"Not for me, for my Secret Santa," said one of several daughters.
"I need some too, for mine," said another girl.
"And candy canes."
"And something big for the end, like a gift card or a DVD."
"A gift card or DVD? Are you nuts?" said the children's cheeseparing mother, as the family moved through the lurid aisles of holiday-themed items at their local CVS.
"Well, it has to be something good."
"Yeah, that's the whole point of Secret Santas."
The youngest of the girls said: "In my class, we don't have Secret Santas. We have Advent Angels. Can I get fuzzy socks too?"
Call 'em what you will, these covert gift-giving rackets are proliferating. Now that we're well into December, millions of schoolchildren have joined Yuletide schemes to slip one another drugstore treats that have been provided (read: paid for) by their parents. The practice is not confined to schools, either: Extracurricular dance, music and sports groups may have them too, with the result that one family can find itself snared in half a dozen overlapping wreaths of secret obligation. And those fuzzy socks add up after a while.
"Can't you make a present for your person?" the miserly grown-up may ask.
"Of course not," the exasperated child will reply. A homemade object would be too revealing -- the recipient would surely be able to tell whose handiwork it was. Plus, it is lame to give homemade gifts at school, apparently.
Part of the fun of being a human Advent calendar, of course, is the mystery attached to one's Secret Santa -- an elastic phrase that, by the way, can denote the person giving the present, the person receiving it, and/or the gift itself. I am your Secret Santa when I sneak you a lollipop; you are my Secret Santa because I pulled your name secretly out of the hat; the candy cane is the Secret Santa that I keep forgetting on the kitchen counter. All very secretive!
Alas, not everyone can keep a secret. Bummed indeed is the child who learns too soon who has been leaving those bags of chocolate drops or bottles of metallic nail polish on her desk -- but sadder still is the exposed gift-giver, who loses the thrill of surprise and the gratification of getting credit for a sumptuous present at the very end.
Last year, our then-6-year-old watched her Secret Santa opening a parcel of nonpareils and couldn't stand the suspense. "It's from me!" she crowed happily, ruining everything.
This year, one of my older daughters inadvertently ruined another surprise. "One of the girls in my class had forgotten her Secret Santa," she explained. "She'd called her dad and he was going to bring the candy when he came to pick her up."
"I happened to be standing at the door and he tiptoed past me, all secret, and she was so disappointed! She turned and handed the candy to me. I was her Secret Santa. I felt so bad for her!"
There is no way to swap secret identities, it seems. So she'll continue giving and receiving boxes of chocolate and hair ribbons and suchlike until just before Christmas, when the big guns come out.
"It's supposed to be about caring for people," said one of the girls scanning the wares in the CVS aisle. "But really it's about who can spoil their Secret Santa the most. So ... which gift cards should we choose?"
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.