iStock/Thinkstock(AUCKLAND, New Zealand) — Nearly 2,000 New Zealand residents signed up for a countrywide “Secret Santa” game this holiday season, continuing an annual tradition in which complete strangers mail presents to each other after learning their interests on social media.
The massive gift exchange, sponsored by the nation’s postal service, and this year drawing 1,979 participants, assigns Kiwis a recipient with a Twitter profile, where past postings can provide clues as to what type of present one might want.
The country of 4.5 million has a relatively close-knit community of Twitter users, uniquely lending itself to such a game, according to Sam Elton-Walters, a government worker who founded the exchange in 2010, after the idea popped up in an online conversation.
“You know how you have six degrees of separation in most places in the world?” Elton-Walters told ABC News. “In New Zealand, it’s more like two degrees.”
The gifts have been diverse: a hand-crafted chili chocolate for lover of spicy food; a crocheted rock; laptops and cellphones gifted by companies; a 3-D printed silhouette of the recipient face-to-face with Harry Styles from the band One Direction; and a painting of a Christmas tree decorated with pumpkins for Elton-Walters, who grows giant ones in his free time. The suggested $10-value limit often flies out the window.
Some participants make specific asks with their tweets, while others work to obfuscate their research by following and liking posts from dozens of people using the #nzsecretsanta hashtag.
Three-time exchanger Alison Poulter, a social media marketing specialist from Christchurch, New Zealand, tweeted in 2014 that she broke her garden hose’s nozzle, before “suddenly, a few weeks later, a new one arrived from Twitter,” she told ABC News.
“It’s quite cool to get to know somebody, and obviously you’re trying to stalk someone as much as you can online,” Poulter said. “It’s kind of creepy, but kind of cool.”
Organizers shy away from encouraging Kiwis to “stalk” each other, according to AJ Sheterline, a “Secret Santa” organizer at New Zealand Post dubbed the “head elf.”
“We prefer to call it ‘sleuthing,’” Sheterline said. “Very Sherlock Holmes-y.”
In its beginning years, Elton-Walters actually sent participants the addresses of their recipients so they could mail gifts directly — which led to at least one uncomfortable instance of an unwanted hand-delivery. Since the postal service took over in 2012, gifts have flown through a central facility run by the postal service.
When people do not send a present as promised, the gift intended for them will go to young cancer patients instead.
Dan Bowden, an IT engineer in Wellington, New Zealand, told ABC News he once sent vinyl records customized to show members of the Beatles, after his recipient expressed an interest in art and the band. This year, he sent a coffee mug with a photograph of a British opera singer printed on it.
The exchange has proven to be an escape for Kiwis saddened by recent earthquakes and flooding there, according to Sheterline.
“It’s fun to jump on Twitter and watch all the people tweeting about it,” Bowden said of the exchange. “You kind of feel like you’re part of this community.”
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