The History Of Secret Santa Gift Exchanges Explained

Those who celebrate Christmas are surely familiar with the concept of the secret Santa. Whether between work colleagues, family members, or friends, a group will form, and each member will be assigned to another. It is then that person's responsibility to pick a secret Santa gift for whomever was assigned to them.

It's all very clandestine, and sometimes the group never learns who gave which gift to whom (even long after everything's been opened). This is all in keeping with the holiday, as, when it comes to Christmas, everyone has a different attitude toward the controversial practice of "shaking" wrapped gifts to try and determine the contents.

Every aspect of Christmas gift-giving is taken very seriously. Frighteningly so, in fact. According to Consumer Decisions, one-fifth of Americans buy themselves into debt at Christmas, while a reported $147 billion was spent online on holiday gifts in 2018. Why all the secretiveness, though? Here's a look at the fascinating history of the secret Santa tradition.

According to Secret Santa, this practice is a long-held tradition in European countries in particular. In Scandinavia, secret Santa is known as Julklapp. Participants often, instead of simply adding the name of the recipient to the parcel, write a verse or other humorous message on the box. This way, there's more fun involved in determining whose gift was whose.

Secret Santa is a blend of old and new traditions

Traditionally, per Secret Santa, they would then knock on a door, throw it open, and energetically heave the gift into the room (the recklessness of this would presumably depend on the fragility or otherwise of the item concerned), before hurrying away hopefully unseen. These rituals explain the name of the tradition. According to Secret Santa, "Jul" means Christmas and "klapp" means knock.

More recently, Larry Dean Stewart became known as the original secret Santa, per USA Today. Stewart was a Kansas City millionaire businessman who embarked on "sleigh rides" every holiday season, distributing dollar bills (typically $100) to the needy. He did this for 26 years (estimating that he'd given away about $1.3 million) before his death in 2007, and only those closest to him were privy to the secret. When strangers received a generous gift from him, he said "looks of hopelessness turn to looks of hope in an instant" (per USA Today).

As ABC News reported in 2012, Stewart's great anonymous gift-giving work goes on. The Society of Secret Santas continues to distribute dollar bills to those who could use them (members are reportedly taught to scan for distressed facial expressions and avoid identifying photography on joining). A close associate of the kindly millionaire, known only as Elf 32A, took the reindeer reins on Stewart's death.