Dear Professor Moriarty: A Pile of Boring Secret Santa Gifts

This week's guest columnist is Professor Moriarty who reports that he is, contrary to rumors, very much alive and quite busy planning for a major event that you will all witness soon. Very soon.

Dear Professor Moriarty,

I have a large family, and this year it’s our turn to host Christmas.

The problem comes on Christmas morning when it’s time to unwrap gifts. Since anyone can remember, it’s been our family’s tradition to do a Secret Santa gift exchange, where you draw a name out of a hat and buy a gift for them—under $15, please! 

Nobody knows who gives each gift because it’s supposed to be from all of us. And this is a huge let-down, every year. I can’t let our two boys open their giftsthey’re thoughtful and things they actually wantbecause it would make the rest of the family feel bad after they open a long series of thoughtless, cheap, and unwanted items … like socks. 

I swear my brother-in-law shops exclusively at Dollar Tree for his gifts, and it shows.

How can I convince the rest of the family to change this cheap, stupid tradition? 

—Christmissing the point

Dear Christmissing,

Oh, I agree with your sentiment. A thoughtless gift betrays a lack of sincere affection. Such a gift is not only useless to the recipient, but it’s also an insult—a sign that the relationship between the giver and the recipient is also cheap and weak.

Time, not money, is the most precious commodity. That includes the time it takes to purchase a gift that actually matters.

When I’m planning a heist—say of a Monet from the Louvre—it requires a team of experts: men and women who live in the shadows. Others rely upon money alone to buy their loyalty. 

I’ve found that to be short-sighted.

People only desire money for what it can do for them. This is why I take a considerable amount of time and effort to learn—discretely, of course—what each of my team truly desires. And I do this long before offering them the job.

One of the world’s finest safecrackers has always dreamed of spending a summer in Paris, alone with a camera and no responsibilities. I made that happen for her. The money she received for the job was incidental. I have her loyalty for life.

For many of the men and women I employ, their real dreams are for their children. I set up scholarships and endowments so that no matter what happens—betrayal, imprisonment, a knife fight in a dark alley—their sons and daughters will lead happy, successful lives.

This matters more to most of my hires than any suitcase stuffed with purple 500 euro notes.

For a gift, especially a Christmas gift, to have true meaning, it must have a strong link between the giver and the one receiving it. So you are right to decry the injustice of this Secret Santa debacle and correct in saying cheap, anonymous gifts send a clear message: we don’t care overly much about this, or about you, so here’s a trifle.

I suggest you lead by example and shame them. If they won’t agree to change the family tradition, change it yourself. Ask others about what each of your extended family truly dream about and want. Make those experiences—not objects, objects are incidental—happen for them this year.

It will take time, and likely cost you more than $15 a person. But these gifts will be truly memorable, unlike the black socks and ugly sweaters of yesteryear. And the presents will come with an unspoken lesson: I care about you enough to do this. 

If your family members possess even a shred of compassion—or have learned to fake it as I have—they will return the favor at the next Christmas.

—Professor Moriarty

See also: Dear Professor Moriarty: A Company Christmas Dinner Disaster


Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and reformed journalist. He's represented by literary agent Jill Marr and can be found on Twitter @speechwriterguy or at his blog, For etiquette questions you want answered in this column, try

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.