Disclaimer: I didn't write Lord of the Rings. I also didn't invent the idea of a Secret Santa/Secret Gift Exchange. I just put them together, and this happened.
Merry, Did You Know?
It was a beautiful day in Rivendell. The sun provided some warmth to the early December weather. The birds sang and the clouds sailed overhead in a deep blue sky. Everything was perfect.
Suddenly, the tranquility was shattered by the sound of two young Hobbits. "Elrond! Elrond!" Merry and Pippin came charging over the nearest hill.
If anyone else had come running towards me that quickly, I would probably have assumed something had gone terribly wrong and they had been sent to find me because, somehow or another, I was the only one in all of Imladris who could make it right. The two young Hobbits, however, did not, at the moment, appear worried or panicked. In fact, they wore matching grins that seemed to stretch the full length of their faces.
My first thought was that perhaps they had pulled some mischievous prank on one of my unsuspecting guests and were now seeking my protection. I was about to suggest that they ask Gandalf, instead, but Pippin spoke first. "Elrond … secret … idea … gift … Fellowship …" he gasped, either too out of breath or too excited to form his ideas properly. I turned to Merry for an explanation.
"We were wondering," Merry translated, "if you could call the rest of the Fellowship together. We thought maybe they would enjoy a secret gift exchange."
"Exactly," Pippin agreed. "I said that."
I decided it was better not to point out that he had said nothing of the sort. "What, exactly, is a secret gift exchange?"
They both stared at me for a moment, eyes wide open. It was the quietest Pippin had been since their arrival, so, naturally, I enjoyed it.
Merry recovered first. "It's an old Hobbit custom," he explained. "A group of friends get together, and each of them writes his name on a piece of paper. Then they fold the papers up and put them into a hat or bowl or cup or whatever is handy. Each person draws a name out and makes a gift for that person. At the end of a week or a month or whatever they decide on ahead of time, they all get together, and someone distributes the gifts."
I was surprised to have received such a thorough answer, but then I noticed that Merry was looking not at me, but off to the side. Gandalf was standing there, and had probably been miming the entire speech.
"It's really quite fun," the wizard shrugged. "And perhaps it would encourage them to spend more time together, get to know each other a little better."
He knew I couldn't argue with that. We had been trying to get them together ever since Frodo and the others had volunteered for the journey. But, so far, Hobbits mingled with Hobbits, Elves with Elves, Dwarves, with Dwarves. Boromir spent most of his time wandering aimlessly, restless, and Aragorn had recently returned with the other Rangers, bringing news of servants of the Enemy. Gandalf, as was his nature, found his way into every circle, but even he had been unable to bring them together.
"Very well," I agreed. "If you can convince the others, I will oversee the exchange."
Soon, the whole Fellowship was gathered, and Gandalf explained the idea. Frodo and Sam, as I'd expected, received the idea cheerfully. I believe Frodo would have welcomed anything that could distract him from the journey that lay ahead of him. Aragorn thought the idea over for a moment before nodding his consent.
The others – Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli – were understandably more hesitant. They were strangers, for the most part, to the Hobbits and to each other. Boromir, however, was grateful for something to do, and soon agreed. Legolas and Gimli eyed each other suspiciously before finally agreeing. No doubt each was reluctant because of the risk of drawing the other's name. After all, what does a Dwarf make for an Elf? And what could an Elf possibly give to a Dwarf?
Gandalf produced a quill pen and paper, which he tore into nine strips and distributed. When all their names had been written, I folded each strip twice. I was looking around for something to put them in when Gandalf removed his hat and held it out expectantly. I dropped the papers inside.
Gandalf turned to Merry and Pippin. "This was your idea. Would you care to draw first?"
Before he had even finished the invitation, Merry had reached in and drawn a name. He opened it excitedly, then folded it again just as quickly to shield it from Pippin's eyes. Merry was obviously no stranger to this game; he gave no indication of what he thought of his choice.
Pippin quickly snatched a name from the hat, opened it, then flipped it so he could read the name properly. A mischievous grin came over his face as he folded it again and stuck it in his pocket.
To my surprise, Boromir stepped up to draw next. After reading the name, however, he turned to Merry. "What happens if you draw your own name?"
Merry shrugged. "Put it back and pick another one."
Boromir folded the paper, dropped it back in the hat, then reached in again and unfolded his new piece. "My name again," he sighed as he folded it. He stuck it back in, shuffled the papers a little, and pulled out another one. Again he folded it and put it back in.
At last, I realized what was happening. "Boromir," I sighed. "You can't just keep putting names back until you find one that you want."
Boromir looked up, feigning surprise. "What?"
I shook my head. "Show the next one to me. If it's your name, I'll keep it out, and you can pick another one. Otherwise, keep it this time."
Knowing he'd been caught, he pulled out another one, unfolded it, and kept it without showing it to me. An exasperated sigh told me it was a name he had already drawn and returned to the hat.
Gandalf drew next, and couldn't hide a smile as he read the name. Legolas, however, reacted with considerably less enthusiasm to the name he drew, and Gimli's face turned red with frustration when he read his.
Frodo went next, and then Sam. Both were smiling as they read their papers. Aragorn drew the last one, nodded with satisfaction, and tucked it in a pocket.
"Very well," I nodded, returning Gandalf's hat. "The day before you leave, come and place your presents in the Hall of Fire, wrapped in whatever you see fit, along with the paper you have just drawn. You will open them together that night."
Everyone agreed, and they began to leave. At last, only Merry and Pippin remained. "Which one of you thought of this?" I asked with a smile. Pippin pointed to Merry.
I nodded. "A fine idea, Meriadoc. A very fine idea, indeed."
For the next few weeks, nearly everyone seemed occupied with their work. Merry and Pippin worked side by side in the garden. Merry wrote carefully in a book while Pippin fiddled with a large cloth and string. A few days after they had drawn names, Legolas happened across the two of them. He nodded approvingly at Merry but gazed questioningly at Pippin's work. Soon, he was seated by the younger Hobbit, offering advice, holding the cloth in place, thoroughly amused by the whole affair.
Gandalf, meanwhile, had sought out Gimli for aid. He could probably have completed the project by himself, but he had taken a liking to the Dwarf. The two of them worked together, chiseling away at a block of stone.
I was with Bilbo in the Hall of Fire when we were joined by Boromir, who approached Bilbo hesitantly. Bilbo smiled. "I suppose you want an idea for what to give one of the Hobbits. I heard about your little stunt."
Boromir shook his head, smiling wryly. "My 'little stunt' didn't do me any good. I drew the same name four times, and it isn't one of the Hobbits."
Bilbo smiled knowingly. "Be careful around wizards' hats, Boromir. But if you didn't draw one of the Hobbits' names, why come to me?"
"I am not in need of ideas – only your expertise. Will you come with me?"
They left together, and I saw them several times after in each other's company, Boromir with a large, thin book and a quill pen. It was enough to make anyone wonder, but I never got close enough to see what they were doing.
Several days before they were to exchange gifts, I learned from Erestor that both Frodo and Sam had enlisted the help of the Elven smiths for their projects. Of Legolas and Gimli, however, I heard nothing. Legolas seemed content to help Pippin in his endeavor, and Gimli seldom strayed from Gandalf's side. Aragorn, as well, did not appear to be making anything elaborate, but that was not particularly surprising.
On the twenty-fourth of December, I entered the Hall of Fire to find sacks of various sizes by the entrance, each with a piece of paper attached to the string. Several of the names were crumpled and nearly torn, but all nine gifts and all nine members of the Fellowship were present and accounted for.
I took several deep breaths, hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst. "Who would like to open his gift first?" I asked at last.
Pippin was practically jumping up and down. "I do! I do!"
I sorted through the sacks until I saw one labeled Pippin. It was a rather small sack, but the Hobbit didn't seem to care. He reached in and pulled out an apple and a piece of paper.
Anyone else would have been disappointed. But Pippin was beaming as he crunched a bite out of the apple and read the note:
"I could say that you are like an apple, but it would not be true. Though apples are sweet and full of flavor, they last only a moment, it seems, before they rot and grow sour. But the flavor of your cheerfulness and your sweet innocence will last as long as you live. Time may weather them as the waves of the sand lap at the shore, but the shore remains, changed and yet unchanging. May your smiles remain as numerous and unchanging as the sands of the shore. Thank you, Pippin, for volunteering to make our dark journey a little brighter."
Pippin looked up, confused, but not by the words. "Gandalf?" he asked. "Was this from you? Frodo? Legolas?"
Each was a reasonable guess. Gandalf, after all, had supported Pippin in his decision to join the Fellowship. Frodo knew him well enough, and the description of the sea sounded distinctly Elven, even to Pippin's ears.
But Frodo and Gandalf had both spent more time on their projects, with others' help. And the writer had clearly known the Hobbit long enough to make such observations. My gaze turned to Aragorn. He smiled and nodded slightly.
"Would you like to go next, Aragorn?" asked Gandalf, who had reached the same conclusion. Aragorn said nothing, but did not object as I handed him his sack. The piece of paper that bore his name had been folded and unfolded many times, so that the word Aragorn was barely readable. But I do not believe he noticed. He simply untied the sack and removed a large, thin book.
At last, I could see what was written on the cover: "Gondor: A Guide to Taverns, Inns, and Other Pleasures." Inside were enough maps to satisfy even the most inexperienced traveler, drawn with elaborate detail and accompanied by thorough descriptions. Aragorn met Boromir's gaze for a moment. "Thank you."
There was no surprise, no one who had failed to guess the maker of the gift. But I believe more happened in that moment than any of us realized at the time.
At last, Pippin could no longer contain his excitement. "Open yours, Gandalf! Open yours!" he called. Then, realizing he had given himself away, he clapped a hand over his mouth.
The wizard laughed and reached for the sack labeled Gandalf. To my surprise, the result of Pippin's work was a simple, folded square of cloth with two straps and a string attached.
Gandalf was as confused as I. "What is it?"
Pippin uncovered his mouth. "Put it on, like a pack. Make sure the end with the string is … downwards?" He glanced at Legolas, who nodded.
Gandalf eyed the contraption suspiciously but decided to humor the young Hobbit. He swung the device over one shoulder and slipped an arm through each strap. "Pull the string!" Pippin nearly shouted, his face glowing with excitement.
Hesitantly, not quite sure what to expect and hoping nothing was about to explode, Gandalf reached back and gave the string a tug. Pippin, however, had neglected to warn everyone else to step back. Two wings exploded out of the cloth, whacking Frodo, Sam, and Merry, who had gathered closer to watch. All three Hobbits fell over backwards, startled, but unhurt.
"They're wings," Pippin announced proudly, as if it weren't obvious. "It was my idea, but Legolas helped. If you're ever stuck at Isengard again, all you'll have to do is jump."
Gandalf smiled fondly as Legolas folded the wings. "Thank you, Pippin. I do not intend to find myself in such a predicament again, but, if I do, I am certain they will be useful."
Pippin grinned. "Open yours next, Frodo!" he called, his excitement growing. At last, the hesitation, the reservation, had faded. Finally, they were all enjoying time in each other's company. Even Legolas and Gimli, albeit on opposite sides of the gathering, were smiling and laughing along with the rest.
I reached for the small sack labeled Frodo, as curious as any of the others. What gift had been crafted for this small Hobbit, who now bore the fate of Middle-Earth on his shoulders?
My questions, and those of the others, were soon answered. Frodo reached into the sack and removed a small metal object. It fit snugly in his hand and was shaped to resemble a mountain. A hole in the top revealed that it was hollow. A message had been carved into the side: "If I could give you the real one, I would." He may as well have added a "Mister Frodo" to the end. We all knew it belonged there.
Frodo wrapped his arms around his friend. "Open yours, Sam."
The sack labeled Sam was considerably larger than any of the others. Sam carefully opened it and removed a beautiful, Hobbit-sized shovel. Designs which curved as a vine around a tree lined the blade and handle. Along the handle ran the words "There and Back Again."
Sam stood still for a moment, at loss for words. "Thank you," he said at last.
By this time, I was simply enjoying the moment. With only four gifts remaining, the gathering was flowing more smoothly than I had dared to hope. No longer expecting the worst, I reached for the sack labeled Legolas and handed it to the Elf. The label had been crumpled and nearly ripped, but I hardly noticed.
My mood was immediately shattered as Legolas removed a rough, grey rock slightly larger than his hand. "A rock?" he asked, turning it over, searching for some hidden message.
Fortunately for Gimli, Pippin came to his rescue. "A rock! Amazing! When you look at it from this angle, it looks like a tree!"
"It does," Merry agreed cheerfully. "Maybe it was meant to be a reminder of your home."
Legolas eyed Gimli curiously. "Perhaps. Would you care to open yours?"
The Dwarf reached hesitantly for the sack labeled Gimli, as if he expected it to burst into flames. But, of course, it didn't, and Gimli reached in and pulled out a rock.
Unlike Legolas, however, Gimli seemed delighted. "A rock! Wonderful! Look at the shape, the colors, the texture!" At first, I assumed he was making a jest, but finally realized he was completely serious. The mind of a Dwarf is something unfathomable.
Merry and Boromir exchanged a look; only their gifts remained. "Open yours, Merry," Boromir suggested.
To my surprise, Merry shook his head. "No. Open yours."
As I reached for the sack nearest me, I could see that the label that read Boromir, had been folded many times on several distinct lines. The gifts made by Aragorn, Boromir, Pippin, Sam, Frodo, Gimli, and Legolas had already been given. That left Merry and Gandalf, and since it seemed unlikely that Merry, the instigator of this game, would keep his own name if he had drawn it, the gift I now held was from him. My curiosity returned as I handed the sack over to Boromir. What had Merry been making?
As I expected, Boromir removed a small but thick, dark green, leather-bound book. He opened it to the first page, which read, "A Guide to the Customs and Traditions of the Shire." Then, in smaller letter, "Come and visit us when this journey is over." Boromir smiled warmly and ruffled Merry's hair. "I will."
Gandalf lifted the last sack and handed it to Merry. The piece of paper had not been folded or wrinkled since it had been drawn, and Merry could still be read clearly. "It's heavy," Merry commented.
"Maybe it's another rock," Pippin suggested.
Merry laughed and pulled out a large block of stone, the same color as Legolas' rock. A picture had been carved into the rock, an image of the whole Fellowship, standing together. "Thank you, Merry," had been carved into the bottom of the image. Everyone gathered around Merry to look, smiling.
Gandalf looked up at me from where he knelt by Merry's side. He winked, and I smiled back. The Fellowship, both in the image and in the Hall of Fire, was together at last.
The Fellowship departed the next day. Sam and Merry left their gifts in Rivendell for safekeeping, and returned for them after their long journey was over. Merry kept his displayed in his Hobbit-hole, and Sam put his shovel to good use. Both have no doubt become family heirlooms.
Pippin had quickly eaten his apple, but the seeds he kept, and, just as Sam spread his gift from Galadriel throughout the Shire, Pippin planted his seeds, carefully, spread across their homeland. It has become a legend among his people that his small bag of seeds was never emptied, and that, now and then, he could be seen wandering through the Shire, planting apple seeds. There is, perhaps, little truth to the tale, but the Hobbits greatly enjoy telling and retelling the story. The note he kept throughout his travels, reading it from time to time, and now it rests with him.
Frodo kept his small model of Mount Doom with him for much of his long journey, until, at last, he entrusted it to Faramir, who returned it after the Quest was completed. I later learned that, many times, he had dropped the Ring into the model and that, for a few moments, the Quest did not seem so hopeless.
Legolas and Gimli both left their rocks in Rivendell, and I do not believe they expected to retrieve them. When they did return for them, however, they came together, and, to this day, they will not part with them. Gifts once given without thought have become treasured possessions, and the source of endless laughter.
At Pippin's request, Gandalf wore his gift when they departed, and continued to do so until, at last, when he fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dum, he somehow remembered to reach back and pull the string. The wings were burned to ashes in the Balrog's flames, but, to this day, Gandalf maintains that, for a few seconds, they slowed his descent, reminded him of Pippin, and gave him the will to keep fighting.
Aragorn carried his gift until, at last, he reached Gondor. There, he left it in Merry's keeping when he and the others departed for the Black Gate. After the war was over, I am sure he used it many times, for though he had visited Gondor before, much had changed since then, and he had not made note, as Boromir had, of the best places for ale, for food, or simply for good company.
Boromir bore the book that Merry had given him until his death at Amon Hen. Aragorn carried it with him, and at last gave it to Faramir, who kept his brother's promise to visit the Shire.
As for me, I have kept the old pieces of paper with the names of the Fellowship, and brought them with me across the Sea. Here, in Valinor, where memories do not fade, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Legolas, Gimli, and I can look back and remember. And one of our fondest memories is of that night, in the Hall of Fire, where a mismatched group of nine strangers truly became the Fellowship of the Ring.