Secret Santas make Cordova smile

Gifts must be delivered by Christmas, and the giver remains a mystery

The 2014 Christmas season was feeling dark and gloomy for Cordova mother Vivian Kennedy, who said she really didn’t feel like celebrating the holidays.

Yet, it was her son’s first Christmas. She couldn’t let the weather that year get her down or dampen her holiday joy.

Then came an “Ah-ha!” moment of inspiration: she would start an anonymous, holiday gift-giving event in Cordova. And that’s how Cordova’s Secret Santa group was born.

This year was round three for the all-volunteer event.

“I’ve spent Christmas in Cordova during years like that,” Kennedy said. “It feels like you blink and the holidays are over. The mood just wasn’t there. Since it was my son Maverick’s first Christmas, I really wanted the Christmas spirit to be strong.

“I thought back to my favorite Christmas moments and one that came to mind was when my mother used to do secret sisters. I remember how exciting it was when I’d go with her to secretly drop off her gift. That’s when I had one of those light bulb moments. I created the Facebook group page and the rest is history.”

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A stack of Secret Santa gift tags are ready for the hole-punch. Participants could tie the custom tags to their gifts so their recipient would know it was from their Secret Santa.
Photo by Vivian Kennedy/For The Cordova Times

The first year approximately 90 people participated. The next year there were 129 participants, and this year 125 people joined in.

The event usually begins in November, with people signing up on the Secret Santa Facebook page, listing their name and post office box number.

Next comes making a list, checking it twice and it doesn’t matter if you’re naughty or nice. Your name goes into an envelope and in turn, you receive the name of someone for whom you will play Santa Claus. This year the Secret Santa names went out on Nov. 22.

Kennedy does most of the prep work herself, with help from her husband Jared Kennedy, and assistance from her son, Maverick. They stuff envelopes with names and addresses, put stamps on the letters and mail them.

The first year Vivian Kennedy didn’t keep a master list. She just stuffed envelopes, making sure nobody got their own name or that of a close relative or their ex-wife’s new boyfriend. Now she keeps a master list of all participants.

“I can’t tell you who has who, after it’s all said and done. It goes so fast that it becomes one big blur,” she said.

But with her husband Jared playing this year she said she was extra careful to make sure they didn’t end up playing Secret Santa for each other.

Kennedy said she waited until just before bed to put her husband’s recipient’s name on his pillow.

“While he opened it, I glanced over his shoulder in anticipation. My heart dropped when I saw the name in his envelope was his own. We laughed so hard! He said ‘This is going to be fun! I’m going to get my person the best gift’.”

But instead a couple of other random envelopes were opened, and his name went right back into the mix,” she said.

While there is no cost to participate, mailing out the gift recipients’ names to 125 people adds up, so Cordovans donated the needed supplies to make the event happen again.

“In the past, I’ve just mentioned that I could use some stamps and envelopes, and before I know it, I’m turning people away. This year I didn’t even have to ask before folks brought me stamps. Even people who aren’t playing come forward to donate,” she said.

The rules are simple: Be physically present in Cordova (no mail-outs); deliver your gift between Dec. 1 and Christmas day; shop within your means, shop locally when at all possible, and don’t get caught delivering the gift.  The amount spent is up to the individual.

All those local purchases bring in an extra $5,000 to the community, Kennedy estimates.

“It’s a nice boost for small businesses during the holidays and could really help someone put a little extra heating fuel in their tank or gifts under the tree,” she said.

A key component to playing Secret Santa is to never, ever reveal the giver.

“If you don’t know who the person is, start by looking at their post on the Secret Santa page,” Kennedy said. “Click on the person’s profile and look for mutual friends. And, whatever you do, don’t let them catch you. Leave their gift in their car, on their doorstep or at their workplace. Just don’t mail it,” she said.

Being sneaky is half the fun, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

One year Kennedy left a gift at the wrong address. Not wanting to get caught retrieving it, she enlisted the help of her brother’s girlfriend.

“Luckily, it was a house of roommates and since there was no tag on the gift, they were all confused and didn’t open it – they didn’t know who it was for. I was embarrassed, but it worked out and I was able to secretly deliver my gift in the end.”

Cordovan Sue Ervin said she loves being a Secret Santa.

“I love giving,” she said. “I like to participate and to feel that excitement of wondering who I’m going to get each year and who is going to draw my name. Then, there’s the challenge of figuring out what to get for my person and how to be sneaky when delivery takes place,” Ervin said. “I don’t get a whole lot of gifts at Christmas, which is fine, but knowing for sure that I’m getting one from a Secret Santa is extra special. It’s also fun trying to figure out who the gift came from. It warms my heart so much, the idea that so many people join as a group to do this.”

Some of the gifts folks have received will go down in local history.

Two Christmases ago, Amber Thompson had a star named after her.

“Amber’s Secret Santa actually dedicated a star in her name,” Kennedy said. “I thought that was cool, probably because it hits close to home. My parents registered a star in my brother Michael Francis Lian’s name when he passed away shortly after birth. He was my brother Eric’s twin and I always felt close to that star growing up. I always look for it on clear nights and think of him,” Kennedy said. “I’ve seen over 200 gifts revealed through our Facebook page. There are some amazing, unique and heartfelt gifts.”

Kennedy said she plans to keep the giving tradition alive.

“I do it because it makes my heart happy. Participating in Secret Santa gives Cordovans a chance to possibly learn about someone new in our community. It’s really cool how it works out. I’ve never heard of anyone being disappointed with their gift. People get really creative and the possibilities really are endless,” Kennedy said.

If you’re interested in being a part of the Secret Santa event next year, subscribe to the group’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/groups/CordovaSecretSanta/

to receive updates and know when it’s time to sign up.

If you’re not on Facebook, someone you know who is, can post for you, Kennedy said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vivian Kennedy is the Cordova Times administrative assistant and advertising representative. 

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson
Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.