Natalie let the string of lights fall with a slap down onto the wooden floor. Jess’ laughter made her teeter dangerously on the chair from where she held the other end of the decoration across the room.
“I love how even your cursing gets festive this time of the year.”
“They won’t stay uuuuuuup.” Peeling masking tape from the wall, Natalie hopped down from the footstool. As she tried once more to affix the lights in a casual-but-classy swoop, she sighed, “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“I was mocking you for not having your Secret Santa gift done yet.” Jess scratched her cheek with one hand, unconsciously drawing attention to her silver engagement ring. Her end of the string of lights sank slightly. “You only have to buy one this year, and we picked names on the third.”
Natalie pretended to be too preoccupied with her living room’s aesthetic properties to reply. It was true that when their friend group had come up with the idea to do a Secret Santa exchange, everyone had jumped at the chance to save time and money. Katie and Jess were scrimping and saving every penny for their wedding; Belle was a semester into grad school; Martha’s cat had wracked up some very expensive medical bills after going to town on her Halloween candy haul; Taylor had just moved apartments across town; and Natalie had gone a little overboard with purchasing new filming equipment on Black Friday. (Mostly with editing software now that she had spent the past year becoming basically an Imovie expert.)
But having fewer people--read: one person--to shop for didn’t really matter when the person she had to shop for was the most difficult one.
Natalie had drawn Katie’s name out of the Santa hat. Aka, her best friend’s fiance. Aka, someone who would absolutely be disappointed if she did not receive a gift that properly conveyed how much she meant to Natalie. Their wedding was planned for April, which meant that any negative or awkward feelings from this gift exchange would definitely still be present (haha get it?) by then.
And it wasn’t a social engagement that Natalie could just duck out of if she failed. She was the Best Person, for goodness sake.
So, naturally, she had spent most of the month throwing herself into her Youtube channel and
“Okay, okay, I’m just teasing,” Jess sighed, after her best friend’s silence had stretched for much too long. She had helpfully deduced that Natalie had not drawn her name out of the hat; however, seeing as it was a Secret Santa, there was no way to know for certain.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. After all, you’re basically a Holiday Cheermeister.”
“Case in point--” Pulling away from the wall, Natalie cheered as the lights finally stayed hung by the stockings with care. “Come on, let’s celebrate with cookies!”
Only after Jess left did Natalie let her smile droop back into an anxious grimace. “Okay, time to brainstorm. Again.”
Digging through her pile of video-planning notes until she found a blank piece of paper, she sat at the kitchen table clicking her pen erratically.
For three minutes, she wrote everything she could think of. Then, when the timer on her phone dinged, Natalie looked over the page.
“Yay, you’re getting married!” Present.
Anything wedding-y was a no-go. Not only did it seem like a cop-out, but as Best Person she had already used all her best ideas (Nerf Guns, matching sweatshirts, and boozy cupcakes) for the dual-bachelorette party scheduled for February. Stealing one of those for this Secret Santa project would make it obvious she didn’t know what she was doing as Katie’s gifter.
She crossed out the first bullet point.
Next option: A box full of small things that Katie liked . But since Katie had three siblings, it was a decent bet that she would already get those things. And even though Natalie knew it was the thought that counted, wouldn’t anyone be expecting something bigger and nicer when they were only getting one gift out of a whole group of friends?
She crossed out the second bullet point.
Candles from that Etsy shop she likes. That was actually an excellent idea, but it was too late in the month. The gift wouldn’t ship in time for the Secret Santa exchange. And even if she just showed up with a “wait until January 6th” card, then everyone would know it took her this long to figure something out.
And then Katie would feel weird, because she’d think Natalie felt weird about her, which would make things weird for Jess…
Plopping her head down on the table, Natalie groaned out loud.
She didn’t even realize she was asleep until a hand tapped her shoulder.
“Oh HOLY night!” She shrieked, sitting up. A weirdly familiar red-lipped grin met her eyes.
“Oh, I love that one!” Christmas Present cheered. They appeared to be wearing a tree skirt printed with reindeer as a shawl; Natalie had to admit, it was cute.
“Uh, what? Why are you here? I’m not being Scrooge-y this year.” She gestured to the wall of Christmas lights, then her fully ornamented tree, then the remains of Christmas cookies on the kitchen counter. “And I haven’t been selfish, either. All of my promos have been items I actually used, and I refrained from uploading from the 10th to the 13th because of that bogus new rule that’s going to disenfranchise--”
“Relax!!!” Christmas Present placed both hands on her shoulders, shaking her a little. “First things first--Hello, Natalie!”
Despite her confusion, the vlogger couldn’t help but smile. “Hi, Christmas Present.”
“Don’t worry, little elf, you’re not in trouble!” Booping her on the nose, the embodiment of holiday spirit added, “I just saw you were having a tricky time so I thought I’d better come help! Just don’t tell the others.”
“How would I even--okay.” Folding both arms across her chest, Natalie sighed, “Help me with what?”
“Katie’s gift, of course!” The spirit gave a little twirl. “After all, who better to assist than Christmas Present?” She paused for effect. “Get it? Present? Because you’re getting her a present, and I’m--”
“Yes, yes, I got that. Thank you.” This was...very weird, but somehow still not as weird as last year. “I don’t mean to be rude, Christmas Present, but don’t you have a person to, you know, teach the meaning of gratitude in three-part scenario so that they don’t doom their soul forever?”
“We only do that on Christmas Eve, silly! Besides, that will be the new Christmas Present’s job!”
“So...you’re not Christmas Present, then.”
The smile faltered. “Well, I guess...not. Technically, I’m last year’s Christmas Present.”
“Which would make you Christmas Past,” Natalie said slowly.
After a beat, Christmas Present twirled in a circle. “Anywaaaaaaaay! This is the most recognizable form for you, so I’ll just keep it for now!”
“Okay. Well, I won’t deny that I need help.” Natalie slumped in the chair with a frown. Christmas Present perched on the table beside her. “It sounds so ridiculous, but I just feel like whatever I get Katie is going to make things awkward.”
“You’ve gotten her gifts before, haven’t you?” Christmas Present muttered to themselves, “This is going to be much less visually stimulating without using your videos…”
“This is different. Before, Katie was Jess’ girlfriend. So I didn’t have to do so much. But this year, I’m the only person in our friend group she’s getting a gift from. And she’s going to be Jess’ wife, now. And I’m going to be Jess’ best person at their wedding. I don’t want to screw it up.” Natalie held up the notes page, where she’d also crossed out “HelloFresh subscription” (too stereotypically Youtube ) and “just a ton of candy” (Jess will eat). “But I’m trying.”
“Of course you are!” Christmas Present patted her head. Somehow, Natalie felt more comforted than patronized, especially since it was all happening in her own head. “Natalie, gifts aren’t just getting a person something that they’ll like.”
“That’s...literally the whole point of a gift, though.”
Christmas Present took the list from her, folding the paper expertly and creasing the edge with their nails. They reached over to grab a pair of scissors from the other side of the table.
“Look--when we’re good at something, we call it being gifted, right? Or when a person spends time with us, we say their presence is a present?”
“...I guess?” Natalie hoped this was going somewhere. The spirit seemed confident, which was a good sign, right?
“And think about your viewers. They don’t stick around on your channel because you pay them to--it’s because they get something out of watching you each week that is meaningful to them.
So it’s not just about making sure the other people in our lives have what they want. Sometimes, the best present is sharing what we’re good at with the world. Taking whatever makes us feel alive and inspired, and using that to connect with another person.”
In their hands, the paper twisted and folded into an origami snowflake. Natalie took it gently with a smile.
“So you’re saying I should take something that you’re good at and use it to connect with Katie?”
Christmas (Not-So) Present winked. “My lessons are much more time-efficient than the ball of light. It’s probably because every moment I become less of what I am.”
“...right.” Natalie held open her arms. “Can I hug you?”
Natalie woke up to a room softly lit in Christmas lights. A paper snowflake sat atop her pile of notes. Seeing it made something warm bloom in her chest, and she took the time to hang it on the tree before getting down to work.
Plan for SPECIAL VIDEO: Katie’s Gift
NATALIE: “Hi, Katie! This is Natalie...obviously, haha.
I just wanted to say that I’m really glad we’re friends. You are so important to me, and not just because you take such good care of Jess--although that’s a big reason. It’s because you’re truly a kind, giving person. So, for your Secret Santa gift, I thought I’d talk about just how that shows up in my life. To the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas, because, well--it’s Christmas! (By the way, if anyone from the production team of Sing or Sink is watching this and wants to give me a call, that would be AMAZING).
[insert singing and B-ROLL footage here]
TWELVE compliments I got from the scarf you gave me for my birthday
ELEVEN heart emojis from when you posted my Dealing With Anxiety video to your friends on Instagram
TEN thank-you texts from that time you helped me search for my car keys after I accidentally lost them in the bushes outside your apartment
NINE new friends on Facebook just from friending you
EIGHT amazing Christmas movies in your top ten that are also in my top ten
SEVEN adorable candid photos of Jess proposing that I took from behind a tree
SIX cups of coffee I owe you for all the times you bought drinks for me and Jess
FIVE Game of Thrones fanfic recommendations with better endings
FOUR restaurants I love now because you recommended them
THREE road trips with good music, lots of laughter, and pretty sights
TWO people in the world who love Jess the most: me and you
ONE very excited Natalie to see you and my best friend marry this year.
The singing, B Roll footage, and editing with her new (much trickier) software meant this would be...a lot of work. Luckily she had a few days to put it all together.
But Natalie felt excited to get started.