Secret Santa

I've never cared for Secret Santas in the office, or anywhere, for that matter. I don't feel the need to pick a random name from a hat and then try to figure out something about him or her (you just know you're going to pick the name of someone you don't know well), and then spend money and time choosing a gift that will not enrich the life of that individual. That won't give them anything that they truly want.

I used to participate in Secret Santa at work, feeling compelled by peer pressure. These days, I have become immune to peer pressure: I only participate in any office social activities if I truly want to.

And I usually don't.

I'm not a Grinch, nor am I a Scrooge, but especially, I'm not a Secret Santa.

Two days ago, on Christmas Eve, as with every year, I did the bulk of my Christmas shopping at the last minute. I usually have an idea of what I need to buy—Lori does most of the shopping for the kids and extended family members, while I get something for Lori, a few little things for the kids, and some stocking stuffers.

I also like to shop in the stores on Christmas Eve because I have worked retail and I know that there can be lots of stressed shoppers. There are lots of folks out there who treat store employees like crap, and so I like to go in and be extra-nice to those workers, to try and make them feel appreciated.

I jokingly refer to the Carlingwood Mall as the geriatric shopping centre, as there is an abundance of grey-haired folks with walkers and canes, moving slowly through the corridors and spending extra time in the shops, looking to strike up conversations with the employees. For a short time, I worked in the CIBC at Carlingwood, and I spent more time just chatting with the seniors who paid a visit than actually conducting business.

It's fine. Most of them are friendly, kind, courteous. The only time I didn't like encountering seniors when I was in Carlingwood Mall was when my kids were infants, and we would navigate the hallways and department-store aisles with a stroller. We would constantly be held up, as the elderly would faun over our wee ones, would reach out to touch a smooth cheek.

"Please don't touch my baby," I would say before any contact could be made.

But I like Carlingwood Mall. It has lots of good shops and is in a convenient part of town. And so, on Christmas Eve, as I was making my final purchases before heading home, I found myself in one of these stores, waiting in line behind a silver-haired lady, who used a wheeled walker for support, trying to purchase a few items for her grandsons.

She moved slowly, her shoulders slumped from a busy day of shopping, or perhaps from a lifetime of hard work. She seemed to be in no rush to finish her purchases, was content to chat with the salesperson at the cash register. The cashier, in turn, was friendly but purposeful: there were others waiting to tally their items, to move on to more shopping or to head home.

When the elderly lady's items were summed up, she opened her oversized purse, retrieved her wallet, and selected a credit card.

When the credit card was declined, the woman asked in a meager voice if the salesperson could try it again, and again, the card was declined.

"I don't understand," the woman said, "I've been using it all day." Indeed, an assortment of parcels and bags rested on her walker. She reached into her wallet and selected another credit card. "Try this," she said, handing it to the cashier.

The second credit card was declined.

Silence.

The woman dropped her head, her eyes showing the calculations she was trying to make. Those shoulders, that already sagged, seemed to slump further. Her face denoted sadness, as though she might cry, as she came to terms with the possibility that her grandsons would not be receiving the gifts she had found for them.

The salesperson, meanwhile, looked at me with an apologetic smile, unsure about how to deal with the woman who could not pay but had not determined her next step.

I'm neither a Grinch nor a Scrooge, and though I wanted to make my purchase and leave the mall, I didn't want to see this frail lady leave empty handed. I looked the salesperson in the eyes and mouthed, "It's okay, let her go. I'll pay for her."

"Really?" the salesperson whispered back, her eyes wide.

I nodded. Smiled.

"Oh, it looks like we're good," the salesperson said to the woman after making a show of checking the register again. "I guess our machine slowed down." She placed the goods in a bag and handed it over, the cancelled transaction slips in the bag. The senior loaded up her walker and began wheeling it towards the mall.

It was only about thirty dollars. I wasn't going to miss it. The lady might discover what happened when she got home, if she bothered to look at the voided receipts. Or she might not ever know.

If she had other shopping to do and tried to use those credit cards, she would discover that they couldn't be used. But at least she could bring her grandsons some joy.

Only the salesperson and I would know what truly happened. On this Christmas Eve, for the first time ever, I could claim to be a true Secret Santa, anonymous and giving something truly desired. And that was good enough for me.

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