The Secret Santa

He never cared for Secret Santas in the office, or anywhere, for that matter. He didn't feel the need to pick a random name from a hat and then try to figure out something about that practical stranger (he just knew that, as luck would have it, he would pick the name of someone that worked in a distant part of the office, someone that he didn't know well), and he would then spend money and time choosing a gift that would not enrich the life of that individual, would not be something that would give that individual anything that he or she would truly want.

He used to participate in Secret Santa at work, feeling compelled by peer pressure. But over the years, he had become immune to peer pressure, would only participate in an office social activity if he truly wanted to.

And, usually, he didn't want to.

He wasn't a Grinch, nor a Scrooge, but especially, he wasn't a Secret Santa.

It was Christmas Eve and, as with every year, he did the bulk of his Christmas shopping at the last minute. He usually had an idea of what he needed to buy—his wife did most of the shopping for the kids and extended family members, and he needed only to focus on finding something for his wife, plus a few little things for the kids and some stocking stuffers for everyone in the family.

But one of the main reasons that he liked to shop in the stores on Christmas Eve was because he had worked retail in his youth, and he knew that there could be lots of stressed shoppers, lots of folks out there who treated store employees like crap, and so he liked to go in and be extra-nice to those workers, to try and make them feel appreciated.

He jokingly referred to the city's oldest shopping mall as the geriatric centre, as there was 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, form some sort of connection with a friendly face. For a short time, he had even worked in the bank branch in that mall, where he would spend more time just chatting with the seniors who paid a visit than actually conducting business.

That was fine: most of them were friendly, kind, courteous. The only time when he didn't like encountering seniors was a time when he wasn't working in the mall—it was when his kids were infants, and he and his wife would navigate the hallways and department-store aisles with a wee one in a stroller. He and his wife would constantly be held up, as the elderly would faun over the children, would reach out to stroke a smooth cheek.

"Please don't touch my baby," he would say, his voice flat, unemotional, but authoritative, before any contact could be made between old and new skin.

But still, he liked going to that mall. It had plenty of good shops that catered to a wide variety of needs and it was in a convenient part of town. And so, on Christmas Eve, as he was making his final purchases before heading home, he found himself in one of these stores, waiting in line behind a silver-haired lady who was using a wheeled walker for support as she tried to purchase a few items for her grandsons (as he understood from the conversation with the person who was trying to ring up the sale).

The senior 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 idly chat with the saleswoman. 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.

It didn't take long to learn that the credit card had been declined, as the point-of-sale terminal sounded a low beep and the saleslady grimaced. The elderly 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 one," she said, handing it to the cashier.

The second credit card was also declined.

Silence.

The woman dropped her head, her eyes moving back and forth in their sockets as she made mental calculations, tried to figure where she went wrong. Those shoulders, which already sagged, seemed to slump further in her perturbation. 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 finally found for them.

The salesperson, meanwhile, looked at the man, patiently waiting, with an apologetic smile, unsure about how to deal with the woman who could not pay but who had not determined her next course of action.

The man was neither a Grinch nor a Scrooge, and though he wanted only to make his purchase and leave the mall, he also didn't want to see this frail lady leave empty-handed. It was Christmas Eve, after all.

He looked the salesperson in the eyes and mouthed, "It's okay, let her go. I'll pay for her." He held cash in hand to show that he was good for the amount owed.

"Really?" the salesperson whispered back, her eyes wide, finding it hard to believe that a total stranger would show such a level of sympathy and compassionate generosity.

He nodded. Smiled.

"Oh, it looks like we're good," the salesperson said to the woman after pretending to check 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 had only been a thirty-dollar purchase. The man wasn't going to miss the extra amount that he paid. The old lady would likely discover what had happened after she was safe at homeif she bothered to look at the voided receipts, that is. Perhaps, 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. That would be a problem for her and the next salesperson to sort out. But at least she could bring her grandsons some joy.

Only the salesperson and the man would know what truly happened. On this Christmas Eve, for the first time ever, he could claim to be a true Secret Santa, anonymous and giving something truly desired.

And that was good enough for him.

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