Secret Santa Gift Exchange Game

The holidays are supposed to be a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. However, if you’re like most people, they’re a chaotic blur of cooking, decorating, and desperately searching for the perfect gift for everyone in your life.

There’s a more enjoyable way to exchange gifts, and it doesn’t require any extra effort or expense. This year, try organizing a game of Secret Santa. It’s fun, simple to set up, and guaranteed to make the season bright.

What Is Secret Santa?

The Secret Santa gift exchange game is a blind gift-giving game that spreads Christmas cheer wherever it’s played.

There are many different versions and variations, but all of them follow the same basic format. Each participant randomly selects the name of another participant and gets that person a gift. Everyone receives a gift, but no one knows who gave it. The object of the game is for each person to guess the identity of their Secret Santa.

Rules & Gameplay

Getting in on the excitement couldn’t be easier. All you need is a few of your favorite people, some gift ideas, and a place for everyone to get together.

At the beginning of the game, each participant writes their name down on a slip of paper and places it in a large container, where it’s mixed in with the other names. Then, each player draws a name at random. The name you draw is the person you’ll be responsible for buying a gift for, making you their Secret Santa.

But that’s only half the game.

When the time comes to make the exchange, you’ll all meet up and designate one person to pass out the gifts, which should be labeled with only the recipient’s name. Everyone will then open their gift in turn and attempt to guess who gave it. Lots of speculation, laughter, and astonished glee will ensue.

To recap, here’s how the it will go down:

  • Have each participant write their name on a piece of paper
  • Mix the names up in a hat, bowl, or similar container
  • Give everyone a chance to draw a name from the container
  • If anyone draws their own name, have them put it back and choose another slip
  • Instruct each participant to buy a gift for the person whose name they drew (wishlists will typically be provided to make this a bit easier for everyone)
  • Have the players label their gifts with the recipient’s name only
  • Meet up to hand out gifts and guess who gave what

If you want to make things a little more interesting, you also have the option of using clues to give each participant a hint about who their Secret Santa might be.

Secret Santa Clues

Need a little help figuring out who got you that talking Garfield scarf? Try playing the game with clues. Clever clues will deepen the mystery while also nudging players in the right direction.

What Are Secret Santa Clues?

In some versions of the game, the Secret Santas offer clues to their recipients to give them a leg up in guessing (or spur them on with good-natured taunting). Ideally, clues should point to the identity of the Secret Santa without giving it away entirely.

How To Give Clues

The simplest way for each player to provide a clue is to have them attach it to their gift in the form of a card or note. With them fresh in mind, the recipient can be pondering the solution while they open the present.

If you’re playing at the office or one of the participant’s homes, you could also leave clues somewhere your recipient is likely to stumble upon them, like on their desk, locker, or the door of their bedroom. This can add an extra element of surprise to the proceedings.

3 Tips for Great Clues

A well-crafted clue will get the recipient’s gears turning and bring the players closer together; a bad one will be indecipherable or make guessing a cinch and spoil the big reveal.

Don’t Make it Too Obvious

If a clue is too on-the-nose, like, “From your cubicle neighbor,” it takes all the challenge (and fun) out of guessing. Go for a more subtle approach with quizzical clues like, “From the only other person who loves Fiona Apple as much as you do.”

Don’t Make it Too Tough, Either

Clues that are overly-complicated or obscure are liable to frustrate rather than encourage. Remember, the point is to make your recipient think, not to totally stump them. Instead of, “My favorite food in the third grade was baked beans,” try something like, “I’m shorter than some but taller than most; I once played soccer with our host.”

Get Creative 

The clues you provide don’t have to be direct references to your identity. They could also be tantalizing riddles, sing-songy rhymes, or callbacks to nearly-forgotten inside jokes between you and your recipient: “What’s small, cute, and makes me hoot? You’ll find out when you claim your loot!”

5 Tips For The Event Organizer

If you’ve volunteered to host a rousing game of Secret Santa, these helpful guidelines can keep you from being busier than an elf on Christmas Eve.

Come up With a Budget

Talk things over your players and decide on a minimum and maximum dollar amount for each gift. Doing so will help ensure that everybody is spending roughly the same amount.

Give Participants Plenty of Time To Prepare

Make an effort to get the ball rolling at least one or two weeks in advance. The longer you give your players, the more imaginative they can get, and the more rewarding the ultimate payoff will be.

Ask Each Participant to Provide a Wishlist

To simplify the shopping process and save the guesswork for the game’s conclusion, have your players draft up a short list of things they want. In the end, everyone will get something they like, and no one will have to rack their brain coming up with ideas.

Set Rules for Giving Specific Gifts

If you’d rather not bother with wishlists, devise some simple gift-giving criteria to make sure everything comes out fair and equal.

For instance, you could ask everyone to bring a t-shirt or coffee mug. Or you could specify that the gifts must be handmade or start with the same letter as the recipient’s first name.

Offer Additional Prizes

If you’re feeling exceptionally generous, you might reward players who successfully guess their Secret Santas by giving them bonus prizes, such as gift bags full of candy, toys, office supplies, or other goodies.

Just try not to make the prizes so swanky that players who didn’t guess correctly feel left out.

Fun Variations to Try

The original Secret Santa is a well-known favorite, but there are several alternate versions of the game for players seeking a different experience. Give one of these variants a shot at your next office holiday party or Friendmas get-together.

Secret Casino Santa

In this version, everyone buys a gift and contributes a predetermined amount of money to a central pot. Players then have three options to choose from:

  1. Pick out a gift from among the pile
  2. Forfeit their gift but gain a shot at winning the pot
  3. Enter a drawing to win all the gifts rejected by players who went with option 2

When the game ends, each participant opens the gift they chose, and the host draws names to determine the winners of the money pot and leftover presents.

Conspiracy Santa

In a game of Conspiracy Santa, all of the players communicate in secret to come up with a gift idea for one of the players. The other players do the same in various combinations so that when it’s all said and done, everyone gets a gift.

Since it encourages communication and helps people learn more about each other’s tastes and interests, Conspiracy Santa is a hit at schools and workplaces.

White Elephant

White Elephant (also known as “Yankee Swap” and “Thieving Secret Santa”) is a twist on the classic version of Secret Santa. Each participant brings a gift that’s likely to appeal to all the others. They then use their turn to either pick out one of the unopened gifts or steal a gift that’s already unwrapped.

Secret Santa Fun Facts

The rendition of the Secret Santa gift exchange game that so many people know and love today is thought to have been the brainchild of a twentieth-century American philanthropist named Larry Dean Stewart. Stewart created a buzz by anonymously giving gifts to the people in his hometown, eventually earning the nickname “Kansas City’s Secret Santa.”

Others claim that the game’s basic formula can be traced back to the long-running Scandinavian tradition of Julklapp (literally, “Christmas Knock”). During Julklapp, people delight their friends and neighbors by knocking on their doors, tossing presents inside, and running away before they’re spotted.

Regardless of its exact origins, Secret Santa has spread to many different countries and has come to be called by many different names. Some of its alternate titles include:

  • “Kris Kringle” (UK/Canada/Australia)
  • “Kris Kringel”/”Kris Kindle” (Ireland)
  • “Christkindl” (Austria)
  • “Wichteln” (Germany)
  • “Sinterklaas” (Belgium/Netherlands)
  • “Mikołajki” (Poland)
  • “Mykolay” (Ukraine)
  • “Angelito” (Dominican Republic)
  • “Monito-Monita” (Philippines)

And the game’s popularity only continues to grow. In 2013, a Lexington, Kentucky high school organized the biggest in-person game of Secret Santa ever played, which featured a record-setting 1,463 participants!

Final Words

If you want to make the yuletide gay this December, consider getting up a game of Secret Santa. There’s no better way to dote on the people you care about while also inviting them to get into the holiday spirit.