Confession: I’m a Hindu who loves Christmas.
Given the extra bounce in my step that December brings out in me every year, I shouldn’t have been surprised when it was in the form of my favorite Christmas tradition that I was sent a beacon of hope. I was gearing up for a grey Christmas day, in my apartment alone and wallowing under the covers. When, three days before Christmas, Cute Guy with The Sparkling Eyes showed up.
It is those moments at the intersection of random happenstance and kindness from a stranger that strengthen my belief in the magic of the December holiday season.
When I was four years old, my parents and I had just moved from India to Indonesia. I had just started pre-kindergarten a few months ago at the Jakarta International School when December rolled around. I had never seen snow or a real Christmas tree before, but I dutifully colored in ornaments, mistletoe, and Rudolph’s nose for homework. I also had my suspicions that Santa would get very itchy and hot in his heavy, woolen red coat when he came to deliver presents to kids in Jakarta, the sticky 32-degree Celsius heat was relentless even at night. But I was excited to fully commit to all these odd but fun traditions. Heck, I loved designing my own paper snowflakes at school so much that I thought it would be fun to see if I could achieve the same effect with a pair of scissors and my family’s clothes hanging out to dry on the clothesline.
To my parents’ credit, they played along with the whole Santa Claus charade and took on this new holiday in their stride. This led to my mom, a Hindu woman living in the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, going out in search of the appropriate accouterments for this Christian holiday we’d now adopted. She returned with a tabletop Christmas tree and a large design-it-yourself stocking kit. I promptly stamped my name in large block letters across the top of my new giant sock and hung it proudly on the handle of my bedroom door.
As Christmas Eve drew nearer, my four-year-old self began to grow concerned with the practical logistics of how Santa was going to deliver my presents. We lived in a three-bedroom villa, surrounded on three sides by a lush green garden, and which featured a long driveway leading to the garage. Our house had no fireplace and no chimney. As was typical of most expat houses in Jakarta, we also had a security guard stationed outside the gates leading to our driveway. I was understandably worried that (a) Santa might just give up and leave if he landed on our roof and did not find a chimney to slide down and (b) our well-intentioned security guard wouldn’t let this large, strangely-outfitted stranger into our driveway, if Santa tried to enter through conventional means.
That is how our very confused security guard found himself subjected to a lecture from a very serious four-year-old, in fluent Bahasa Indonesia, about what security measures he should and shouldn’t follow upon sighting a large man, in a flying sleigh pulled by horses with antlers, landing on our roof.
We continued our traditions of decorating our tiny tabletop tree every year with handmade ornaments, cut from paper and cardboard, and garlands of silver and red tinsel and birthday party streamers. My mother would fill my stocking with all my favorite chocolate each year, and on Christmas morning I would gleefully jump out of bed to empty my stocking and see what had showed up under the tree. As I grew older, Santa was replaced by the much more useful knowledge that my parents were getting me a present each year and I could bother my parents daily, when that was never an option with Santa.
Somewhere around middle school, I let my parents know they didn’t need to get me presents anymore. This wasn’t our holiday to celebrate—I already got treats and presents for Diwali every November—and it didn’t seem fair to demand presents just because it was December. I still decorated my tabletop tree and my mom continued to fill my stocking with chocolate.
When I left for college in America, we stopped taking out the tree. Yet still, the first thing I would be greeted with upon retiring to my room at two in the morning, after a twenty-something hour journey around the world, would be my battered red stocking hanging on my bedroom door handle, the green block-print “SUNANDA” faded but still claiming this glorious stocking full of chocolate as mine.
It has now been five years since I graduated college and nine years since I’ve been living in the States, thousands of miles away from my family. Returns to India are no longer guaranteed like clockwork at the end of a semester. Two years in December, I managed to swing a three-week trip to India, after carefully stockpiling vacation days all year. Three years ago, I got to spend Christmas with my cousin and nieces in the snowy Chicago suburbs, baking cookies and feeling festive. Four years ago, I was on-call and worked through the holiday weekend. Five years ago, I was on an Amtrak train on Christmas Eve, traveling through the night.
My Christmas plans are dependent on when I’ve taken an India trip that year already (and the state of my vacation day stockpile) and, if my cousins and aunts and uncles in the States are around and have invited me to join me that year. While the “what am I going to do for Christmas?” question has become a growing source of anxiety each year, it hasn’t taken away from my fascination with all things festive this time of year.
I faced my first winter in the States in bitterly cold rural Iowa, with dunes of snow carving soft hills into the otherwise flat terrain. As my first semester ended, I learned that Grinnell College had an annual secret Santa exchange in which all alumni and current students could participate. One of the rules of the exchange was that you had to write a “dear secret Santa” letter and post it on our Grinnell-only social network, GrinnellPlans. Some letters were pithy (“I like bourbon, floral scented things, and am allergic to peanuts”), some featured long lists of specific asks (“For starters, I’ve had my eye on this set of cat-themed baking molds for several months now…”), but my favorites were the ones from alums who shared where they were in their lives and what they felt they needed right now (“My wife just left me, so could you send this girl something to soothe her broken heart?”).
That first year, the alum assigned to me turned out to have gone to the same elementary school as I did in Jakarta. Upon doing some research, he found out who were our mutual friends and shared this, and his memories of Jakarta, in his letter accompanying my gift. My senior year, my Santa read my “Before I Graduate Bucket List” buried at the bottom of my GrinnellPlans page and sent me a giant inflatable sled (with guidance on the best spots on campus to go sledding, of course). Every year, for the last nine years, I’ve made sure to participate in a secret Santa exchange, so that I could be a part of creating that Christmas magic for someone else too.
Since moving to Chicago for work a few years ago, there are a handful of Christmas traditions I try to participate in every December. I visit the Christkindl Mart, the bustling outdoor German street market overflowing with vendors selling handmade holiday crafts, paper lanterns, spiced apple cider, and steaming hot chocolate. I buy overpriced holiday stationery and write cards to my friends and family. I drag my best friend, Heather, to go ice-skating with me at Millennium Park, as holiday music is piped through the tinny speakers. Last year, some friends and I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo Lights Festival and I vowed that going forward Christmas would not be complete without churros and mulled wine at the zoo.
Most strange to most native Chicagoans though, is that I make it a point to shuffle along Michigan Avenue at least once after the twinkling lights have been strung around the trees peppering this mile of holiday shopping chaos. Yes, there are a million people and, yes, the shoppers and wailing children can get insufferable when all you’re trying to do is walk home from work… but I can’t help but smile when snowflakes gently start to fall, the fairy lights blink warmly against the midnight black sky, and shoppers’ grumbles are hushed for a few moments, as everyone looks up to the skies in wonder.
This year, I didn’t get around to doing most of my December traditions—too many scheduling conflicts and days where temperatures below zero (Fahrenheit) nipped each plan in the bud. I figured I’d head out to the suburbs for a cozy Christmas Eve with my nieces, but only remembered the week before Christmas that my cousin, her daughters, and husband were traveling to Arizona for the holidays this year. As each of my friends and coworkers boarded flights and trains to visit their respective families, my heart sank with the realization that I had zero plans for Christmas day itself. Resigned to a snowy day with Netflix and Trader Joe’s frozen meals-for-one, I muscled through my last week of work before the holiday weekend.
December 23 was just another day at work. It was much to my surprise when a random—rather attractive—guy awkwardly walked up to my desk at around 10 a.m. on the Wednesday before Christmas.
At first I didn’t realize he was looking for me. I flashed a quick smile to acknowledge this person walking past my desk and I continued typing away at my computer. He stopped and turned back around, now a few steps from my desk. He tilted his head to the side and looked at me curiously.
“Are you Sunanda?” he asked, looking at me in askance.
Startled I looked up at this lanky stranger, stopping to take-in his large bright brown eyes and long lashes, his high cheekbones and half-smile, curling up at the corners of his mouth now with pleased amusement. Damn, he’s cute, I thought to myself. Please let him be a permanent transplant. I’d never seen him before, so he was either new to the office or visiting from elsewhere.
“Uh, yes, I am,” I said.
His eyes lit up upon the confirmation of my identity. Honestly, no one’s eyes should be allowed to sparkle that captivatingly at a workplace. I felt like I was at the edges of a large pool, about to fall in any minute.
“I have something for you!” he announced proudly. Wait, what? I quickly scanned him and my mind over, looking for clues or a possible explanation. I noticed his work badge dangling from his belt and snuck a peek at his name. The name certainly sounded familiar. I thought I might have seen this name on a list of all the people on our North America team.
As he started rooting around in his backpack for whatever he had for me, I asked him if he was visiting from another office, digging for clues as to his identity. He’d still yet to introduce himself or explain his presence.
“Oh, I’m visiting from California. Just working out of the Chicago office today.” Drat, I thought. The cute ones are always visitors.
He found what he was looking for and placed a mid-sized package in a USPS bubble-wrap shipping envelope on my desk. He looked at me expectantly, as though I was supposed to know what this was or why it was on my desk.
Since he was visiting from California, maybe one of my teammates sent something for me through him, since he was visiting Chicago? That seemed reasonable.
“Uh, thank you. Um…?” Still clearly confused, I looked at the parcel, then up at him, and then back at the parcel.
“Oh! I’m your secret Santa,” he added as an afterthought.
I’d signed up for our North America team’s secret Santa exchange two months ago and after sending my assignee her present, I’d promptly forgotten that I’d be receiving one too. This was starting to make a lot more sense now.
“It’s nice to finally meet you!” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. He beamed a 100-watt smile at me, a lock of his black hair flopping over into his eyes. “I first thought I’d mail it to you but then when I realized I’d be visiting Chicago I thought it would be more fun to deliver it in person.”
“Well, thank you! This is definitely a fun surprise.” He grinned bashfully at the floor now and made a motion to leave.
“I’m going to grab one of these empty desks, if that’s okay.”
I nodded and started to tear open the package, curious to see what he got me. He waited to see me unwrap the present.
“A book! Cool!” I smiled as a note fluttered to the floor from the pages of Humans of New York. I’d heard of the blog but didn’t realize there was a book of the same name.
“Read the note—it’ll make more sense,” he said hastily. “I know it’s not exactly what you said you wanted to get in your secret Santa letter, but I thought you might like it.”
Crap, what did I put in my letter? I had no recollection of writing my Santa letter this year—I must have listed my standard likes: chocolate, fuzzy things, and all-things-Harry-Potter related.
“I, uh, looked up your website and Tumblr, and you seem like someone who’d find explorations of identity politics a fun read.” He added this sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders.
My heart stopped for a moment. He did research to find out what I’d like and he got social science nerd speak? Swoon.
He sat down at an empty desk nearby and took out his laptop to start working. As I started to read his note, I began to remember what I’d written in my secret Santa letter and I wanted to give two-months-ago-Sunanda a hug.
In addition to whatever my Santa chose to send me, I asked them for a note telling me three things that made them smile and what is one piece of media that has changed the way they look at the world.
And so, his gift to me was precisely that: a lovely note and a book that changed the way he looks at the world. More than fuzzy things or chocolate, this was exactly what I needed this year.
There isn’t a grand romantic gesture or meet-cute-style happily ever after to conclude this story. The Cute Guy with the Sparkling Eyes left at the end of that day and I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. But his thoughtfulness reminded me of why I love this holiday season and that I don’t need to run through a checklist of cheer to feel the magic of Christmas. What I need is to spend this time of year with the people I love and to create new memories and new traditions, rather than wallowing in those gone by.
While I didn’t have plans for Christmas day itself this year, after my early visit from Santa, I went into the holiday weekend with much more good cheer. My best friend invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family and it was everything I could have hoped for and more—baking cookies, decorating ornaments, singing carols, and watching It’s a Wonderful Life. I didn’t realize how much I needed the reminder that it’s the people and the memories you create that matter the most.
So, next year, I’ve decided that I’m getting my own tabletop Christmas tree. In fact, I’m throwing a tree-decorating party, with cookies and sprinkles, with hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, with cheesy Christmas music and board games, and with friends, my family away from home. I want to consciously define what this time of year means to me as an adult. I don’t want to be dependent on other people’s travel schedules or how many vacation days I have left.
And even if I end up spending Christmas day itself alone, I’ll be okay. In the end, for me, the magic of Christmas doesn’t have anything to do with December 25.
When my mother went in search of a Christmas tree in Jakarta, she saw that I wanted more than anything to fit in at my new school and exchange shared experiences. When she had a stocking hung up and ready for me upon returning home from college, she saw that I needed to believe that some things wouldn’t change, even if so many other parts of my life were. When my freshman year of college secret Santa took the time to identify our points of shared experience growing up halfway around the world, he saw in my letter that I was secretly homesick. When my sled-giving Secret Santa looked through my senior year bucket list, she saw that I needed to make the most of my last year at Grinnell to focus on the people and memories I’d take with me, rather than on what I’d be leaving behind upon graduation.
For me, the real magic of Christmas is this time of year, where we can find and create those moments to make a stranger smile, because we’ve taken the time to see someone as they are and give them what they need.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.