Secret Santa, the brainchild of a wise Jewish philosopher?

Button with picture of Jewish philosopher Maimonides with caption: "What would Maimonides do?"

I was thinking about Secret Santa the other day. Not the one who buys you a tacky gift at your company’s Christmas party. Not the one who assembles your longed-for train set in the living room after you go to sleep Christmas Eve (sorry to break it to you, kids, that’s not Santa, it’s your parents, and they ate those cookies too). Not even the one who secretly bought me extra admissions for the gym recently. I’m speaking of the one who supports, whether through gifts or monetary donations, others’ holiday celebrations around the world. Why must the giving be limited to Christmas? Let’s include anyone who helps others at any time of year in our definition.

I had an unexpected encounter with a generous Secret Santa in my midst Monday evening. Secret Santa is a diligent volunteer at Canadian Blood Services who often arrives early to her shift. She is friendly and outgoing and a pleasure to work with. (Open your mind; not all Secret Santas are boys.)

This do-gooder apologized after arriving a few minutes late to her shift that night. She was delayed dropping off two turkeys at a local homeless shelter for their well-attended upcoming Christmas dinner. She had planned to donate just one turkey but because they were on sale, she could afford two.

I don’t know much about Secret Santa, except that she is a young woman starting out in her career. She is married but I do not know what her husband does or even whether he is employed at this time of high joblessness in Calgary. I do know she is a generous, good person, and she needn’t have apologized for being late. She told me: “I am lucky to have so much. This donation was the least I could do.”

This woman is not Jewish, yet I’m wondering whether she knows of Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician (people had multiple professions back then) who described eight levels of charity. The lowest level is giving unwillingly–makes sense, doesn’t it?–while the highest is helping someone become self-sufficient even before the need arises by, for example, offering a job to someone out of work or teaching someone a means of earning a living.

Secret Santa’s act of generosity falls second from the top: giving anonymously to an unknown recipient, thereby sparing the recipient the shame of needing to ask for help. When she dropped off those turkeys, she did not leave her name, nor did she know who would be eating them. The recipients will not know of the effort she made to procure their protein. I imagine Maimonides would laud her selfless act were he still alive.

I wish I could tell you that, after hearing Secret Santa’s story, I ran out and filled the food bank bin at the grocery store or made an anonymous donation to Calgary’s Jewish Family Services, an agency which serves Jews and non-Jews alike, but alas I did not. I have no excuse for my negligence. Thank goodness I have time yet to make Maimonedes proud. I may not have Secret Santa’s credentials but I’ll come up with something. ‘Tis the season, is it not?


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