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December 29, 2013

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Every holiday season, the Chronicle Forums’ Secret Santas deliver much more than presents.

It wasn’t an outwardly extravagant gift—a box of chocolates for her, a few brushes for the ponies, Hello Kitty figurines for her 3-year-old daughter, and a World War II book for her 11-year-old son. But when Kat Butler, 37, (known on the Chronicle’s online chat forums as “Freebird”) opened the carefully packed box last December, it meant everything.

These beautifully wrapped gifts selected by a stranger brought Christmas into a house darkened by sorrow and delight to a young family deep in mourning.

“My husband and I had been married for 2½ years when he died suddenly,” said Butler, of Georgia. “Last Christmas, our first without my husband and their daddy, was terribly hard for all of us. I didn’t even have a tree in my house.

“I was numb. It was so hard to function during the holidays, and then this package arrives,” she continued. “I could tell how much thought she had put into it. My kids were so thrilled to have a Secret Santa. They were jumping up and down! My daughter still calls those little Hello Kitty dolls her ‘special gifts.’ ‘I want to play with my gifts!’ And my son still reads and re-reads that book. It was a little bright moment in our Christmas. It truly was.”

Guinea Pigs Need Gifts, Too

The Secret Santa gift exchange started many years ago on the Chronicle Forums (also known as "COTH") under the “Off Course” section, but has been organized since 2007 by Susan Auten, better known to the online community as “Chocomare.”

Every year, more than 100 active board members from the United States, Canada, Australia, and, in past years from Scotland, other parts of the United Kingdom and Haiti, submit their names to become “elves,” along with a dollar amount they feel comfortable spending. They are then matched with someone who is spending the same amount of money.

Georgia rider Susan Auten, better known to the online
community as “Chocomare” and pictured here on her
mare Penny, has organized the Chronicle Forums’
Secret Santa gift exchange since 2007.
Photo courtesy of Susan Auten  

It may sound simple, but it’s grown into a great deal of work and a task that Auten, 47, tackles quite cheerfully.

“The real challenge is to always keep mixing things up,” said Auten, also of Georgia. “We try, within a price group, to match maybe an eventer with a western pleasure rider or someone from North Carolina with someone from Washington State. We try to mix geographically and across disciplines to keep things interesting and give them a taste of something from another part of the country.”

Once the names are matched, the real merriment begins. Tradition holds that even before presents are shipped, the “teasing” phase starts. The elves post messages on the board to their giftees, dropping little hints, writing silly poems and heightening the holiday anticipation, all while giving small clues as to their identities.

Butler said her children love this part.

“I’ve done it for so long—I joined COTH when my 11-year-old was just 1, so he looks forward to it every year and asks to read the posts and see if our Secret Santa has teased us,” she said. “It’s just a neat, neat thing.”

“There is such sweet attention to detail,” Auten added. “They’ll look at someone’s profile and see they have two boys and think, ‘They will like a truck,’ or that they have two dogs and a cat and make sure their treats are specific. Even if they don’t have a horse, they find some way to make it special for their giftee.

“They do horses, dogs, cats, gerbils, guinea pigs, husbands, children!” Auten continued, laughing. “Some people send it all in one box; others dole it out little box by little box.”

The methods are as individual as the elves themselves. Most of the participants will reveal their identities when they send the gifts, but sometimes this is forgotten, and they’ll post on the thread. Other times they prefer to remain anonymous, saying it came from Santa Claus and leaving it at that.

The poster known by the moniker “Noctis” confesses that there have been many years her gift from a Forums member is the only Christmas present she receives.

“As a single mom, COTH’s Secret Santa gives me something to enjoy about Christmas that is just for me,” she said. “That someone cares enough to find lovely things that pertain to the horse side of my life is truly the highlight of my Christmas season.”

Beyond those who receive gifts, the Christmas spirit touches those who give in perhaps an even more poignant way. Such was the case for Butler’s elf, a 43-year-old Forums member named Janelle from New Jersey.

“I had no idea how much my Secret Santa gift meant to Kat and her children,” Janelle said. “To hear that a year later they are still playing with them and referring to them as their ‘special gifts’ really touches me. Her children were so young and probably didn’t understand why their daddy was gone, and that is so hard.”

De-Grinchers To The Rescue

Additionally, there are times when, for a myriad of reasons, someone who signed up to be an elf can’t deliver; at that point they earn the distinction of “grinches.” So Auten keeps a few reserve elves each year who can handle the rare case when someone has been “grinched.”

“I have a group of people who don’t actively participate in Secret Santa but are my back-up elves,” she explained. “There are about 10 of them, and I can ask them to step up and fill in, and they say ‘absolutely’ and give without any expectation of receiving.”

One such elf wishes to remain completely anonymous, so we’ll call her Jingle. 

“I don’t need anything, but I’m doing the de-grinching!” she said. “Things happen, packages get lost or whatever, and then I’ll step in and be the fix-it elf!

“When you’ve been grinched, it’s a letdown feeling that maybe humanity isn’t caring,” Jingle continued. “It’s not the present, it’s not the monetary amount, it’s the idea. No one deserves to feel neglected or ignored. And that is why I figured I’d step up and be a de-grincher.”

Jingle said she embraced this role after being the recipient of overwhelming emotional support following a diagnosis of breast cancer and the beneficiary of the board’s collective wisdom. During her chemo treatments, two members of the Forums who lived in her area helped her feed and care for her horses and drove her daughters to activities.

“You start to get to know people’s names, and I’ve gotten both really good advice on the forums as well as incredible help,” she said. “You have to pay it forward. I got incredible help when we needed to put my mare down, and it’s a question of, ‘How do you pay people back that you really don’t know face-to-face?’ You do things like this.

“When you’re down, you need that unexpected hand without feeling any strings or pressure,” she continued. “When you’re back up, you realize how important it is and how much you want to return the helping hand.”

The Great Leveler

It’s these unassuming and thoughtful acts of holiday compassion that most distinguish this Secret Santa experience, and as the organizer for so many years, Auten has seen it over and over.

“Every year I get a [private message] from someone who doesn’t actively participate in Secret Santa but has followed the threads and asks about someone who has had a hard year and makes Christmas for them,” she said.

One example she recalls is “Tamara In Tennessee,” who, like Butler, also lost her husband last year.

“Tamara never participated in Secret Santa, but I had offer after offer for her information from people wanting to send gifts to her family or make a donation in her husband’s name. Things like that happen every year. Every year,” said Auten.

The Forums’ moderator, who’s been overseeing the site since December of 2007, has witnessed this firsthand.

“I made the conscious decision to not participate in the threads, beyond what is necessary from a moderation standpoint, but that doesn’t prevent me from being impressed on a daily basis by the kindness and generosity of our members and the very real relationships and support systems that are forged through the site,” said the moderator, whose identity is kept secret. “The foundation and backbone of the Forums is a community of knowledgeable, passionate, funny, creative and caring horse people that we are fortunate to call our site home. Secret Santa is just one expression of this group of traits.”

Auten refers to the Secret Santa idea as “the great leveler” on a board that has many different types of members.

“Think about it,” she marveled. “We have everything from the weekend warriors and trail riders to some really big name equestrians who have plenty of money. There is no class in Secret Santa. No one is rated. You are just a horse owner, and you want to reach out to your [COTH] family.

“We have our warts, and we bicker, and we fight, and we’ve got our trainwrecks on COTH,” she added. “But the bottom line is, when it comes right down to it, the majority are really, really terrific people.”

This is something Auten will experience firsthand this Christmas. After tirelessly devoting so much time and energy over the past seven years to ensuring that others experience a bit of holiday joy, she’s had a very difficult year of her own. Auten’s mother died in November, and her husband has developed early onset dementia, deteriorating very quickly over the past six months. Due to these circumstances, she chose to not participate in the gift exchange, yet she was still determined to organize it.

When Kat Butler (known on the Forums
as “Freebird”) lost her husband suddenly
last year, the COTH Secret Santa exchange
brought a bright spot to what had been a
tough holiday season for her and her two
young children. This year, she’s taken over
organizing the exchange to help give
back to others.
Photo courtesy of Susan Auten 

But as stress and commitments mounted, Butler saw an opportunity to pick up the mantle and help someone who’d done so much to help her. Many of the relationships that began behind the veil of anonymity on the COTH boards have spilled over into real-world friendships, and Butler and Auten are among them.

Butler confesses she’s been astonished to witness the outpouring of concern and goodwill for Auten.

“This year, when I sent out the matching emails, almost every person emailed me back asking what they could do to help,” she said. “Almost every person said they were going to send her something special. A card in the mail, a small gift.”           

“I was floored when I realized Susan had all that going on in her life and went ahead and started organizing the Secret Santa anyway,” said 25-year-old Kristie Swift (“ToTheMax”) of Pennsylvania. “It really says a lot when a person is going through so much and still cares about making other people happy—especially complete strangers!”

Meredith Young (“TarheelJD”), 42, of Atlanta, was impressed by the grace Auten maintained while going through something difficult, yet she’s not surprised that COTH members are going out of their way to send a little extra Christmas joy her way.

“It’s a bunch of equestrians trying to cheer up a fellow equestrian who has been having an awful year, at the holidays,” said Young. “Even if there are some COTHers involved in Secret Santa who fight on virtually every other thread, they set that aside on this one, and it’s nice to see.”

Having experienced this generosity of spirit firsthand last year, Butler agrees. “It is incredible how giving strangers can be in the horse community.”

This year, Butler reached out to the elf who restored a little bit of her spirit—holiday and otherwise—last year. “I thought about her all year long, actually, and what an incredible gift she had given my kids,” she said. “I noticed she hadn’t signed up this year, but I ordered a little something for her anyway, just something small. And I wish I could’ve done more, but I wanted her to know how special she was to me. She will always have a special place in my heart.”

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This article appeared in the Dec. 23 Holiday Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Also in that issue? The annual Holiday Pets Gallery—a collection of reader-submitted pets dressed up for the holidays. Horses, dogs, donkeys and cows in their festive best!

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