The Santa Box

The Santa Box: Yes, Julia, there is a Santa Claus. She exists as certainly as friendship and kindness and curiosity exist. (Paraphrase of New York Sun 1897 reply to “Virginia.”)
At the beginning of fall, I became friends on Twitter with a writer tweep in England. I can’t remember how we started chatting—how do these things happen?—but if you’re like me on Twitter, you’ll probably understand: one day a random tweet turns into a friendship. It’s one of the most mysterious yet more wonderful things about the great Twitterverse!

And sometimes out of that, if we’re lucky, we may find a true friend, and sometimes if we’re even luckier, we may find a Secret Santa!
Such it was with Abi Burlingham. We hit it off quickly, and within a few days we were exchanging daily tweets about our writing and editing, the weather and gardening, then even what we planned to make for dinner tea! (And we discovered differences….for instance, me: refried pinto beans. Her: Shepherds Pie.) At first we communicated only by Twitter, often asking one another: “What does that mean?”—because turns out British English is quite different than American English!

Then we started writing emails back and forth—which gave me an idea to write a blog about our language differences. Although we could communicate perfectly well, our words to describe things and even names for things were so different. Fascinating!

I learned about jacket spuds, dorts, bubble & squeak, fry ups, and grotty jobs. Abi learned about being “socked in,” skosh meaning small, Thanksgiving, and Blue Jays. Of course there was a lot more. Like we both learned that crisps and chips mean the same thing as do chips and fries, and that baps are rolls are cobs. Ace means excellent. And 100% is 100%. Most of all we learned that friendship transcends all these language differences.
And of course, a writer is a writer—so we read each others’ blogs and found out we have a lot in common—we both love typewriters and our families and our dogs and birds and nature. That we’re both mostly vegetarian. That we both love family traditions and surprises (like Santa Boxes).

For lunch we had homemade pizza and assorted “nom noms” from
the Santa Box, including Twiglets, crisps, and cheese twists.
Abi is very creative and an amazing writer. She loves poetry and is an accomplished children’s book writer. I cheered her on with a recent book launch, celebrated wonderful book news, but also cheered her up when she had bad writing days and “tweeted chicken soup” when she had a cold and the flu.

For me, in the middle of editing drafts of my WIP, I’ve felt so lucky to have writer friends like Abi who encourage me on down days when I wonder if I’ll ever be able to finish. Abi is also very understanding of my frequent absences from Twitter as I battle the social media dragon and balance it with the demands of the WIP. 

Origin of an Idea

One day in October, I had an idea—not sure where it really came from—that we could exchange “Secret Santa gifts.” After the weeks of talking about different foods and customs, I thought it might be fun to put together an exchange. Abi quickly agreed. And October 7th an idea was born: I would send a Santa Box of presents from the US, and she would do the same with British pressies (oh, I found out that’s what presents are called in England).

And then the fun began. On Twitter and via email, every time we talked: “Do you have such and such?” It became our standard question. “No reason,” we’d quickly add. My mental notes added up: no cheese popcorn, no Reeses peanut butter cups, no Trader Joes! Her mental notes: no smokey bacon crisps, no Curly Wurlys, no Twiglets!

November 28

I sent an email to Abi on Thanksgiving, a photo of our table, an explanation of all we cooked, an invitation to join us in a future year. Her first glimpse of Thanksgiving except what she’d seen on American television: Friends. The day before Thanksgiving she mailed her Santa Box! And a few days after Thanksgiving, I mailed mine!

Here’s Abi’s lovely painting in front of the tree where the crow
was perching when I took the photo!
In the package I included a letter explaining everything I sent—I wanted to explain why I’d picked each thing. Some food, some small gifts, a book. I wanted to give her a flavor of not just Maine but of the US, of the things I enjoyed and were important to me. I sent a gift for each of her children and even something small for her husband—something he’d remembered having when he was younger (Kool Aid!).

And then we waited. And chatted some more, of course.

December 5

When I mailed my package to Abi, the US Post Office told me it would take 5 to 7 days, and I “might be able to” track the package with the customs number. On the seventh day, I went online to check and it said the package “had been delivered.” I was so excited!

I emailed Abi who said that she had not been home so the package was left at a neighbor’s house. They weren’t home. I was in the middle of baking cookies when ten minutes later my doorbell rang, and it was my letter carrier. He had me sign a card to receive an international package! Then he went back to the truck to get the package!

When he returned, he gave me the Santa Box, and I gave him a handful of warm cookies! As soon as I closed the door, I ran to the computer, and had just received an email from Abi with the subject line: HO HO HO. And I knew that Operation Santa Box was complete. A flurry of about 7 trillion emails back and forth confirmed our extreme excitement!!

And then we waited some more! 

The Santa Box

Abi’s book GRUB’S PUPS and the cover of her upcoming book
A MYSTERY FOR MEGAN (click photo for link to Abi’s book page!)
For a while Abi’s Santa Box was the only thing under our tree. Little by little other pressies joined the cardboard box. On Christmas Eve, my college-age daughter wrapped the Santa Box in bright paper then returned it to under the tree.

Christmas morning MEH, our daughter, our son and his girlfriend, gathered around the tree and began to open gifts. One of the first things we opened was the Santa Box. It was so exciting!

The small bird hangs from a metal basket
on my desk, a lovely reminder of Abi
and my other Twitter friendships!
For one thing, it was my first chance to see Abi’s handwriting—she sent a letter too! And her books, the first I’d seen of them! When we decided to send the boxes to one another, I arranged to buy an inscribed set of her Ruby and Grub books to donate to my local public library—so happy to know that children in my town will have a chance to read Abi’s wonderful books! To my surprise, Abi also sent me as a wonderful gift a copy of her latest picture book: Grub’s Pups!
Abi also sent an assortment of “nom noms,” including Twiglets—Abi’s and her daughter’s favorite and now my son’s; cheese twists (I LOVE these!), and crisps/chips in flavors we don’t have in the US (smokey bacon and steak). Also, a lovely handwritten recipe card for Shepherds Pie—a recipe we talked about on Twitter!

Two items in the Santa Box were quite sentimental…an incredible painting Abi made of a photograph I once tweeted—a crow in the tree outside my house. I was quite moved by this as well as by a small tin bird ornament, which to me represents the origins of our friendship on Twitter.

The small bird hangs from a basket on my desk. It not only reminds me of the wonderful Santa Box, but also of my new friend “across the pond,” and of all the wonderful writer friends I’ve made on Twitter! As Abi says “It’s brill!” 

Click here to visit Abi’s blog and read all about the Santa Box I sent her!

Have you ever had a Secret (or not so secret!) Santa?


  1. Julia, this is ACE! So lovely to see your *nom nom* foody tea and the bird ornament – you’re right, it looks as if it was made to go on that basket! Here’s to lots more surprises across the pond!

  2. CMSmith says:

    You are such a good friend to others, Julia. I’m glad you found me as I was chirping on twitter.

    What fun!

  3. Emma Pass says:

    What a fab post – and a fab idea.

    I have had a secret Santa this year too – you! I am over the moon that you included a packet of Hershey’s Kisses for me in your delivery to Abi. I used to get them from my uncle (who lives in the US) when I was a kid so it’s brought back some happy memories. It was so kind of you and totally unexpected! Thank you. 🙂

  4. Abi, Looking forward to what 2012 might bring for even more surprises!!!

    Christine, You’re so sweet! And I’m so glad I’ve found you on Twitter too — wonderful to share good tweets with you!

    Emma, Glad you enjoyed the post (and the idea, too)! And in a way, I really was your Secret Santa in the truest sense of the word! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the Hershey’s Kisses and the memories, too! You’re so welcome!

  5. One of the best uses of Twitter, in my opinion, is how it can connect us with other folks around the country, and yes, even around the world.
    Wonderful post, Julia!

  6. Jamie says:

    Too fun. I loved that story. And the part about seeing Abi’s handwriting. I feel the same when I see a video by someone I met and have got to know through the online universe. It’s interesting to hear a voice to put with their writer’s voice.

  7. I LOVE this idea and couldn’t agree with you more about the wonderful friendships forged from social media interaction. Your experience with Abi (hi Abi), reminds me of the same excitement I would get when I was younger. I started communicating with pen-pals when I was in sixth grade and, at one point, had friends from 12 different countries. It was such fun learning about different cultures and languages then. It was a dream come true when I visited my friend in the UK and my friend in France in my early twenties. To this day, we are all still in touch and have visited one another. Must get back to Europe to see them both!

  8. So fun! Thanks for sharing the story! I’ve learned a lot by having so many international people on my Twitter as well. I can never get over how some people are a whole DAY ahead of us! Crazy time zones.

  9. Liz says:

    Social media friendships are nothing short of amazing! I really love all the British-isms, too! We have a friend who lives in the US now, but grew up outside Londo, who constantly specifies when something is a Britishism.

  10. Nina B says:

    Oh! I loved this post so much and found it so inspiring. I too find so much value in my online relationships. You’re so right that there’s a certain mystery to why some tweets create the first seed to a bigger friendship.

    Loved that gifts! How wonderful!

  11. Cynthia, Thank you; glad you enjoyed! I certainly agree absolutely that Twitter’s best use is to connect us to others — but, seriously, when I started: WHO KNEW? 🙂 p.s. glad to have met YOU, Cynthia!!

    Jamie, So glad you loved the story, and it really was SO fun!! We were near hysteria pitch the day we received our Santa boxes!! And, I agree that seeing videos and hearing voices of Twitter/blog friends is great fun!

    Melissa, So glad you enjoyed the post! I love your story about the sixth grade pen-pals you ended up visiting and still keep in touch with — that’s wonderful! I never had that experience, but I certainly feel amazingly lucky to have met wonderful writers like you and Abi via Twitter!

    Sara, So glad you enjoyed it! Those crazy time differences are amazing! I often start tweeting with Abi first thing my time and it’s already past lunchtime there! A DAY ahead? Wow, very cool!

    Liz, I love learning new ways of saying things via Abi — so much fun! And I agree, the friendships forged via social media ARE nothing short of amazing…. glad to have met YOU!

    Nina, Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it! I agree…friendship is always somewhat mysterious, but it’s so true that some tweets — just 140 characters — seem to create that first seed. I wish so much I knew what it was that Abi and I shared to begin with, so fascinating!

  12. Erika Marks says:

    This is so wonderful, Julia! What an incredible box of treasures sent and received–as the recipient myself of one of your gift boxes, I can attest that they are one-of-a-kind and truly precious. And to share the spirit of the season with one another–and YOUR FAMILIES!–it doesn’t get any better!

    Cheers to you BOTH!

  13. Having spent over a decade on a very US-centric internet, I’ve gradually learnt to “speak American” in most online situations. There are far too many instances of misunderstanding if I “speak Australian” in full. 😉 That’s not to say I’m very Ocker normally (howzat? XD), but there is certainly a degree of self-censorship to ensure clear communication!

    I think your Santa box is a lovely idea, and it’s so great you get to share some of the nice foods from around the world! I already have a noms trade with my US in-laws, who send me my favourite candybar (Take 5!), which has never been available in Australia (except the rare international food importers). Fun fact: biscuits to you are delicious savoury dinner rolls (which we would view as a type of scone); biscuits to us are all hard-baked cookies (though soft-baked/soft-centred are sometimes called cookies).


  14. Great post. Great gifts. Happy New Year!

  15. This is such a great idea! When I was young I used to have pen pals and I would be so excited for the mail to arrive every day to get letters from these friends throughout the U.S. I’d love to do something like that again now, like your Secret Santa idea.

  16. Nancy Kelley says:

    Two years ago I could not understand why anyone would use Twitter. However, I kept reading that writers need to be there, so grudgingly, in July of 2010, I signed up. I was immediately overwhelmed by how many amazing author-friends I made, just by showing up.

    Then I met the online Jane Austen community, and I finally felt at home. I actually started a website with one of them; Jess is one of crit partners and now a very good friend as well. We’d never have met, if it wasn’t for Twitter.

    Now to find a British Twitter friend to exchange presses with… 😉

  17. Ann says:

    Julia I just love it! Abi sounds like an amazing friend and I can feel your excitement jumping off the page! Thank you for sharing and I’m off to Abi’s blog to read about her post! *sigh* I just love it!

  18. Wonderful post Julia. It’s really heart warming to hear and see how friendships can be made.

    This whole Twitter / social network thing is amazing, but only if we embrace it. And you two certainly have! :o)

  19. Erika, You’re so sweet! It has been such fun to get to know Abi and other Twitter friends like you — and the boxes are such a fun way to express the spirit of friendship! You are so right, it doesn’t get any better! Thank you!

    Ashlee, Glad you enjoyed the post! I often think how US-centric everything is, which is one of the reasons I love the international element of Twitter and blogging when I get the chance — I spent a lot of time outside the US as a kid and I guess the international community often feels like home… so I say, bring on the Ocker! (p.s. and whichever I call it, the more biscuit/cookies the better! 🙂

    Christine, Glad you enjoyed!

  20. Nancy, I know exactly what you mean about a shift in how you view Twitter — ME TOO!! That’s so wonderful that you’ve met such a great community and even started a website! It’s amazing how really at home we can feel with others we’ve never met in person, isn’t it? (p.s. and here’s hoping that you find your British Santa, too!)

    Ann, I am so glad you enjoyed the post! I also love the way we meet Twitter/blogging friends — it’s such a natural process through each others’ blogs and tweets! Here’s to great friendships born on Twitter and through blogs, good friend! 🙂

    Dean, So happy to see you here at my blog! Thank you so much for your comment — glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, I feel very very lucky to have given Twitter a chance — I’ve made such wonderful friends, like Abi, and now you! Thank you again!

  21. This is such a great post! I can relate, because my best friend is from the UK. She’s English but grew up in Scotland. I’ve LOOOOVED learning more about fun English phrases/sayings: knackered, wanker, tosser, gutted, pissing a gail (raining), grim, driving me round the bend…and one of my favorites: Lost the plot. I just love this saying: “She has totally lost the plot.” Or, gone crazy.

    I’ve also loved learning about different UK accents from my BFF. She speaks in a very proper English accent even though she grew up in Scotland, but she can switch from one accent to another to another and it cracks me up. Had no idea accents were so unique and varied in the UK!

  22. Awesome story, Julia, 🙂 It’s the melding of 19th and 21st century; very awesome and very thoughtful!

  23. Stephanie, Glad you enjoyed the post! I love that expression: “Lost the plot,” and I’ll have to surprise Abi with it 😉 I think of my language expressions as so ordinary, but that’s another reason I like talking to Abi — makes me see that some of our Americanisms are pretty fun too. Is that what your best friend thinks?

    Mahesh, Glad you enjoyed the story — I agree, it really did feel like melding the centuries by doing the Santa boxes! Thank you and happy new year!

  24. JM Merchant says:

    Julia, this is absolutely adorable! What an amazing idea! I love that you’ve now gotten to sample some of the best of English, sorry , British snacks and that Abi has been teaching you the lingo.

    This has really made me smile 🙂
    Hope you and the family, and Abi and hers, had a wonderful Christmas.

  25. Jo, So glad you enjoyed the post — it was SO much fun!! I am enjoying getting to know the snacks and lingo of your country (England, Britain? That’s one that still confuses me and I need to work out!) I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and new year, as did we, and that I see more of you in 2012 as we continue this great blogging adventure! 🙂

  26. JM Merchant says:

    If I’m honest I don’t understand the British/English thing either. I think British is considered more PC. My favourite example of this was when Andy Murray was competing over the last couple of years; when he was losing he was the Scottish tennis champ, when he was winning he was the British tennis champ…or something along those lines!

  27. Jo, It makes me feel better that you, too, have problems understanding the difference! Thank you for the examples and for making me feel less unenlightened! 🙂