August 8, 2022

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I first heard about Reddit Secret Santa four years ago, when my friend told me...

I first heard about Reddit Secret Santa four years ago, when my friend told me she had been gifted a trip to a music festival in Switzerland. The recommended spend price may be $20, but participants can receive very generous presents from their match — and not just when it’s Bill Gates, whose extravagant gift-giving has become legend on the Reddit discussion forum.
After noticing she had a love of mountains and music in her Reddit profile, Tushara’s match invited her (flights paid) to stay and to attend the Montreux Jazz Festival by Lake Geneva. Reflecting on the experience, Tushara says: “They put so much effort and care into looking after me, and they made me feel safe in a random country with random people.”
“Random” is one way to describe the idea of hanging out with a stranger in another country. But in the view of fans like Tushara, Reddit Gifts, which started in 2009, is like a time capsule of the internet, harking back to an age when people treated each other better online. It is, she says, “based on making other people happy for no personal gain, which I think in itself is quite special, especially when it’s on such an enormous scale”.

For some, these presents — usually sent anonymously — were the only ones they gave and received throughout the holiday season

For more than 100,000 Reddit users, taking part in its online Secret Santa has, over the past decade, become an opportunity to give a small present and be part of something bigger. Unfortunately for them, 2021 will be its last year. In a post this summer announcing the end of Reddit Gifts, the platform — which is often associated with hosting rather less wholesome content — said it had made the “difficult decision” in order to focus more on enhancing user experience, including investing in moderator tools.
The announcement prompted an outpouring of grief in the site’s comments. Many users wrote movingly about the positive impact the gift exchange has had on their mental wellbeing. For some, these presents — usually sent anonymously — were the only ones they gave and received throughout the holiday season.
This year is Veronica Rosso’s eighth Secret Santa (and her 29th Reddit Gifts exchange in all, as the website has run numerous other exchanges for occasions such as Halloween). Last year, she was unable to participate after being injured in a car accident. But after she posted a comment about how she was still enjoying browsing the Secret Santa forum, another user reached out and asked to send a gift outside the usual system. “They just sent me something to cheer me up in my bad moment.” She recalls opening the presents and “bawling my eyes out, just so overwhelmed with the love of a stranger”.
Fans of the exchange say it is not the gifts themselves — more commonly joke Christmas-tree hats, cookbooks or homemade hobby kits than trips to Lake Geneva — that stand out. It is the act of giving. It’s also an experience that is capable of evolving with people’s life changes. Andrew Odom first signed up in 2012 when he was a single graduate working and living alone away from family: “It gave me a way to get into the holiday spirit, connect with others and give to someone who may have been in the same situation.” 
Later, when he married, his wife joined him in his annual ritual. Their previous matches have ranged from a child to an elderly widow. “It’s really cool to have been able to be the person that [they] know was thinking of them,” he says. He is expecting this year’s final edition to be a bittersweet moment. “A lost tradition is always a sad thing.”
So Reddit Secret Santa will be no more, but this Christmas custom may yet live on. Almost immediately after the announcement that it was ending, efforts started to launch similar online Secret Santas, including by the creator of the original scheme, Dan McComas. The scramble of users flocking to alternative versions shows how important the exchange has been to many participants. Says Rosso: “It gives me hope in a world that is, I think, quite frankly sometimes very glum.”
Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu is the FT’s external platforms editor
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