New Norms: Saying No to Secret Santa

As we continue with the holiday season (Christmas is less than two weeks away!), I continue reassessing the traditions that come with it. I find myself participating in festivities for the sake of tradition, which is never a good reason to participate in the first place. Tradition keeps people repeating the same thing over and over again, is based mostly on emotions associated with the past, and usually involve rigid practices. There is no room for creativity with tradition, no room for forward thinking. Awareness sheds light on the fact that it isn’t really I who wants to partake in the yule tide carols, just like I realized long ago that it wasn’t really my choice to go to church. But every Sunday I woke up and went to church and sang in the choir for 12 years. I attended every single Easter Vigil Mass, Palm Sunday Mass, and Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, until there came I point where I felt it strongly in my heart that it was not my own decision and to continue doing so would be fraudulent. I still live a selectively Roman Catholic lifestyle in terms of ethics, but without the absolution and the rituals. I took some of the lessons with me, but got rid of those that did not serve me. Likewise, I carried that mindfulness over to the holiday season. Picking and choosing which parts of the holiday I still want to keep for myself is difficult to do without feeling like much of a Grinch, if it weren’t for the core group of like-minded people I’ve surrounded myself with to support me.

I vividly remember going out to lunch with a high school best friend the week before Thanksgiving. Prior to high school, I moved 10 times in my life, so the high school friends that I kept in touch with over the years are technically my longest friends. Everyone else before high school, I have lost touch with, mostly because I was young, and partially because pen pals stopped being “a thing” in early 2000s. There are only a few high school friends that I still talk to today, and they are the people who have the same views on life as I do. Those who I grew apart from I don’t have contact much with, because like tradition, keeping in touch with someone for old time’s sake is, to me, a waste of time.

But I digress. My high school friend and I met up for our occasional lunch dates on a day that I had off. Typical of our usual dates, I would drive to her work place and she would take her lunch break after I have arrived, so that we could go and grab something to eat. We were sitting outside in sunny California weather, when she brought up the topic of Secret Santa at the workplace.

“I hate Secret Santa,” she said to me. She explained that every year, her workplace does Secret Santa with a minimum spending limit of $25. However, people at work don’t really know each other on a personal level. So every year the presents are the same, generic presents, usually alcohol-related or Starbucks gift cards, or if you’re unlucky, an item that you don’t even want. My friend doesn’t drink alcohol, like myself, so I can see why the alcohol bit is a turn off in the first place. Plus, she said something that made an imprint in my memory. “If I want Starbucks, I can buy myself Starbucks. I don’t need someone to be required to buy me my own coffee.” She was so frustrated with the whole thing and with an exasperated sigh, she told me, “So this year, I told them I wasn’t going to do it.” I kind of just looked at her, until something in my brain clicked. You can say no. I think I had that OMG-AHA! moment, and she laughs lightly and says, “So far, I’m the only one who said no. Let’s see what happens.” She shrugged and I laughed with her and told her that she was a genius.

The funny thing is, as early as October, I sent my extended family on both sides quite a long email about how I do not want presents for the holidays this year because I was trying to be more mindful. Every year, I get about 20 presents from my extended family, mostly stuff I do not want or need, and within the first few months, I have to find a way to de-clutter it all. So I wrote to them explaining that there is no need for presents and if they wish to gift, to consider maybe donating to charity. So the concept of opting out isn’t new, but for some reason, I never thought to extend that to other groups of people, with other traditions.

So off course, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, someone came around my work handing out little pieces of paper for our Secret Santa. They asked me to list three things on it, and to return it to them at the end of the day. I grudgingly took the piece of paper, and remember thinking about it, folding it up, and tucking it in my lab coat, as if in slow motion. During downtime throughout the day, I kept thinking, what do I want? I even took out a little black notebook from my purse and a pen to jot down ideas. I came up blank. I couldn’t really think of what to ask for, because the few things I wanted, I had already asked my parents and brother and sister to get for me. And then I thought of it. What I want is to not participate this year. If I had to rack my brain to come up with even ONE thing to ask for, I do not actually WANT that one thing. I only want it because I was told that I need to want something.

I texted Mike right away and told him that I was asked to do Secret Santa but that I don’t feel like doing it. That same day, Mike had been debating about going to a work lunch outing. One of his managers was leaving, and the team was going to go out to celebrate, at lunch, AND after work at Happy Hour. Mike didn’t want to celebrate twice, spend twice as much money, and twice as much time. He had been talking to me about this the last few days, and I told him, well, you could skip the lunch? I could tell that he felt the pressure to join the entire team to take their manager out to lunch, but that he really did not want to go out twice. So when I texted him about my Secret Santa dilemma, he texted back and said, “Okay, don’t do it. I told them no to the lunch thing. You can do it too.” And just like that, I texted Mike a quick “Thanks!” and texted my high school friend saying, “Guess what! I’m saying no to Secret Santa too, just like you! I don’t want to spend $50 to buy someone a present when I can’t even think of a single thing I want someone to buy for me.” To which she said, “$50?!?! People ARE insane.”

I did not mention the Secret Santa to my coworkers for the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day the office manager asked for my slip of paper. I looked at him and simply told him, “I’m sorry. But I cannot think of one single thing I want to ask for. I don’t want to participate in the Secret Santa.” Surprisingly enough, he just smiled and said, “Okay!”

And the snowball kept on rolling. Here are other things we’ve done to change up so called traditions.

  • Me, Mike, and the sister in law trying to convince Mike’s mom’s side to drop Secret Santa. When we got a lot of push back, convincing them to decrease spending from $50 to $25.
  • Texting the girlfriends and asking not to exchange gifts this year.
  • Cutting our spending on our family members’ gifts by half. Asking family members if we can split their gifts with other family members.
  • Switching up which extended family gets Christmas Day.
  • Not agreeing to attend my family’s yearly Las Vegas trip.
  • Backing out of some family Secret Santa’s, AFTER the names have been drawn. Telling them to re-draw names, because we no longer want to participate in gift exchanges for parties we aren’t even able to attend.
  • No longer continuing the tradition of buying Christmas decoration during Christmas time. Exception: The Christmas tree. Still debating if it was a worthy purchase, but enjoying its scent and bareness. Likely to be a continued tradition.

Here are traditions we still kept:

  • Gift exchange with immediate family members and one secret santa exchange with our core group of ten friends
  • The aforementioned Christmas tree
  • Occasional Christmas music

Decisions still to be made:

  • Will I attend the holiday party this year? I am absolutely dreading it. I was talking to Mike last night about how much I did not want to go. I work at two different offices, owned by the same guy, but with two completely different Christmas parties. One is more reserved and polite, and the other is just straight up rowdy. This year, I am working with the latter on the day of the party, which means that is the party I am invited to. Every year, they go out to a restaurant or bar as a group, and there’s lots of tequila shots being passed around. Stories of people getting hammered and blacking out continue on to the following Christmas. Stories of continuing the party afterwards at some club. I would rather go home and read. I’m leaning towards skipping out on those “festivities”, though I’ve already had multiple people questioning me whether I can make it. It’d be nice not to.

Grateful for my high school friend, Mike, and the sister in law for being of the same mind. Grateful for our families who have been very open and accepting of our new no gifts rule. Grateful for change, and the ability to think for myself. Grateful for old traditions, but even more so, newer traditions.

How is your Christmas changing?

Thoughts on: Less and Happiness

When I tell people that I have found more happiness in less things, I usually get a blank stare, followed by grilling questions, and finished with a sort of resistance. I’ve successively proceeded through multiple stages of redefining what brings happiness in my life within a relatively short time span. The following are real life examples of people’s responses to some of the lifestyle changes that I have started to implement within the last year that required living with less.

Me: “I’ve started to de-clutter everything I own that I don’t love or that serve me no purpose.”

Response: “You are going to miss those things in a few months.”

Me: “I started to practice minimalism.”

Response: “You mean, getting rid of all your stuff and living with nothing?”

Me: “I am recently trying to give up drinking alcohol.”

Response: “How are you going to have any fun?”

Me: “We are being selective with which social occasions we go to with our friends, because we don’t want to waste money on things like dining out, disguised as hanging out.”

Response: “So you don’t hang out with your friends anymore?”

Me: “I am going to give up shopping for one year. I don’t want to buy more clothes, for the sake of keeping up with the fashion trends.”

Response: “I could never do that.”

Me: “I am going to attempt to do all my grocery shopping without purchasing plastic.”

Response: “That’s too much of an inconvenience. Good luck with that.”

The consensus? People generally do not like the idea of less.


Thoughts on happiness. 

The 2017 World Happiness Report measured happiness using six variables: social support, income, healthy life expectancy, trust in government and business, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. Only one of these categories involves money, which most people unfortunately and truly believe will buy them happiness. The problem is that as people try to increase their income, other variables that are used to measure happiness decrease. Most people have a social support system that consists of their family and friends. Sometimes, if they are lucky, they will also find a social support system at work. For example, I work with dental assistants and treatment counselors, and we have each other’s back when it comes to delivering good dentistry. When it gets crazy busy, everyone helps the other out, and I don’t care if I’m a doctor, I’ll clean rooms, scrub instruments, and set up trays like everybody else. But for other people, they go into work and sit at a desk, and work on a task individually, then come together in group meetings and present their work. So usually for this type of work, the more people work trying to increase their income, the less social support they have.

I watch people overwork themselves to earn “enough” money to “barely get by”, but I also see these same people going out to Happy Hour for “reduced” prices, hitting up sales to get “great deals”, buying Disneyland passes and lining up for the new Iphone. As people try to increase income, they apply a lot of stress in their lives, wear themselves down, get sick often, and usually get less exercise. These factors decrease another variable, which is a healthy life expectancy. Okinawa, a Japanese island, has the highest life expectancy in the world, 86 for women and 78 for men. It is also considered one of the happiest and most laid-back communities in the world, built around community, dancing, and music.

I always hear people complain about going into work or hating their job, and I think to myself, why don’t you just quit? When I ask them this, many express that they can’t leave because they need to pay their bills. What they don’t realize is that their bills are so high because they there is a certain lifestyle that they try to attain. I see parents who work five days a week in order to buy their kids that video game system they want for Christmas, instead of staying home and spending actual time with their kids. And then they complain that the kids grow up so fast, and they don’t have the time or energy to watch them grow. Most people who are unhappy with their jobs have a decreased perceived freedom to make their own life decisions. The more money becomes the reason you work, the less you are likely to leave, voice your opinion, challenge your superiors, and work creatively. The more tied you are to your job, the less likely you are to reduce your hours, move to a different city, state, or country, say no to co-workers, and so on and so on.

Lastly, generosity. It is difficult to be generous when one’s time is occupied by work or when money is valued so highly. It is difficult to give back when it feels as if every dollar needs to be spent on “necessary” things, when it feels like you’re broke. But we aren’t broke. Broke is when you have not had something to eat for days. Broke is when you don’t have a roof over your head anymore to shield you from the cold. Broke is when your children can’t go to school because they have to work or help out at home. We are not broke. I believe that it is this last and final variable that will bring the most happiness. We are a compassionate species.


Thoughts on less.

What I have found in my path to living with less, is the happiness that came with it. Uninvited, unexpected, but one hundred percent welcomed.

  • When I got rid of a majority of my clothes, I found that I wore something I love every day, and getting dressed in the morning was no longer stressful, because the decisions became easy. Remember when we were kids and we just started dressing up for school on our own and we had a favorite shirt? It feels like wearing your favorite shirt every day.
  • When I started to focus on experiences rather than things, I found that I accomplished more in the last year than I have in the last five years. I traveled extensively to New Zealand, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Palm Springs, Mexico, Hawaii, and Germany in the last year, all for leisure. I learned how to do yoga on my own (no longer am I paying for classes at a ridiculous rate of $20/class or $165/month) and take joy out of deciding what poses come next or what part of the body I will focus on that day. I learned how to do ceramics with my own hands, how to play guitar (at least I can dabble), how a latte is supposed to be poured (I can make a leaf, on a good day), how to use a calligraphy pen, how to speak German (well, enough to understand signs in Germany), how to make tortillas out of scratch, and more. Because I wasn’t out spending my money on time-sucking tasks like shopping, dining out, going to Disneyland, I have found ways to add to my skill set and rack up some pretty cool and diverse abilities under my belt. I find happiness every time I learn something new, meet a new person, and achieve an accomplishment or a goal.
  • I started to refuse out-sourcing things. I love the challenge of fixing something without buying an additional gadget or paying for a service. I once paid $180 this year to clean our loft by professional cleaners. It was seriously the worst $180 I spent, retrospectively looking at it. It was nice because it saved me time, but arguably, the time it saved me was probably used doing less efficient activities anyway. I told myself I don’t want to continue doing that anymore. Now whenever a home improvement task comes along, I learn how to fix it on my own, and I just feel so proud knowing that I am capable, resourceful, and all sorts of frugal.
  • I realized that alcohol was starting to make my stomach queasy the next day, or that skin rashes resulted from being too dehydrated (also the reason why I gave up caffeine and started drinking decaf). I tried to eliminate alcohol consumption completely as of June of this year (the only exception was a beer or two in the weeks I travelled to Hawaii and Germany), and found that I enjoyed the social gatherings as much as when I used to drink. Heck, I was even more engaged and developed deep conversations and connections with people. Plus I feel totally fine the next day.
  • We started being more selective with which social gatherings we go out to, which then started to shape who we hung out with. We realized that we were hanging out with groups of people who really enjoyed spending their money on bowling nights, fancy dinners, happy hours, and other activities. We also realized that we no longer wanted to spend our money on those things, and to spend them instead on other prioritized experiences, such as travelling and new hobbies. We started to say no, and we were okay with that. Our friends who were really close to us found ways to hang out with us without spending money. We established a new group of friends (who I happen to work with) with whom we meet up every Wednesday night with at someone’s house to play board games or video games. How many people nowadays have time set aside to meet with their group of friends, once a week, every week? Very few people I know do that anymore. We found that the friendships that were truly meaningful became more connected and stronger, and those that were less meaningful fell out of our lives. Some people question us for this decision the most, but it was probably the best decision in my opinion. You are as good as the people you surround yourself with, and we just couldn’t surround ourselves with people who would prevent us from living our best lives. We didn’t dislike those people. We just had different goals. It wasn’t a compromise we were willing to make.
  • I created a personal challenge for myself, which was to not buy an article of clothing this year, which later turned into not buying anything for myself. Once I de-cluttered everything, I did not want to spend that much time doing it again. The most important thing about minimizing is not how much you let go, but how much you add in. When I started doing this challenge, it felt like I was a recovering addict. Seriously. Which is probably why most people’s excuse is, “I can’t do it.” It was a very difficult thing to do. I didn’t realize how easy it was to get sucked in by advertisements and notifications which I have set for myself via email or Instagram telling me that I need to buy more stuff. I checked my favorite companies and websites continuously, and added things to my cart and I physically ached for things. It took me a few months to stop feeling this way. And even some days, after I was better about it, I would turn to Mike and say, “I miss going to the mall.” But I no longer allow myself to go. Because it is truly an addiction. This particular scenario may not apply to other people, but maybe the weakness is Amazon, or video games, or car parts, or happy hour. Whatever it is, once I felt better and got over the burning desire to purchase stuff, I knew that I cannot go back. Admittedly, I did fail once so far. I bought myself a used, vintage dress from a local small coffee shop. It was spontaneous and highly unnecessary, but it was a mistake I thing I had to make. I loved the dress and wore it once a week for the rest of summer, but I also knew deep down that it was money that did not need to be spent, and it grounded me and furthered my resolve to say no. This is usually when people assume my life is awful because I am depriving myself from things I want. But I’m not. Consider all the things I have accomplished this year and the places we have been. I am just re-writing my life for things that I want more.
  • And lastly, giving up plastic. I’ve had people laugh in my face, scoff, roll their eyes, ask me “Seriously?”, sarcastically tell me “Good luck!”, quietly judge me, or whisper about me in the middle of the check-out line as if I can’t hear every word they were saying. I’ve also had people support me, get on board, genuinely tell me “Good luck!”, and thank me for “Saving the world” (my favorite lady at the register). I’ve gotten people to watch documentaries about plastic and started many conversations about how to do it and why. And it just feels good. It feels good to be intentional and mindful and to just feel like you’re making a difference, even if others don’t see it that way. It feels good to be optimistic about everything.

I consider myself happier than a lot of people I know. I consider my husband happier than me. I consistently hear the same loud complaints or murmurs of dissatisfaction about the same few things. Work, money, health, relationships. I can’t convince a person to change their life, neither do I want to. I do want the people around me to be happy about their lives. I want everyone to be happy. We are all responsible for our own happiness. Discovering a world with less emphasis on STUFF earned me a higher level of happiness. The one thing I can do is to verify that this is doable and true.

Interested in other thoughts on happiness? Right this way. To see what traditions you can give up this holiday season, come hither.