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Beyond Secret Santa: Alternative ways to exchange gifts with friends and family


Gift-giving between family, friends, coworkers, and other peers is a large part of the holiday season. At many celebrations, most offices, groups, organizations and families on a budget do a variation of the traditional "get a gift for everyone involved" by implementing a Secret Santa system -- also known as Secret Friend, Invisible Friend, or Non-Denominational Holiday Icon -- to keep costs down. The general rules are that each person involved anonymously gives a gift to one other person in the group, there is often a cost limit, and revealing the gift-givers name is usually optional.

            Secret Santa is easy to put together, it works, it saves money, and it's fun. But as someone who participates in many Secret Santa events during the holidays, it has gotten stale. Last year I participated in a personal record of 12 different Secret Santa events between festivities with my coworkers, different groups of friends, club members, and multiple branches of the family. While entirely grateful for the opportunity to be cheap during the holidays, each celebration was almost identical, and by the 12th run I never wanted to hear the words "Secret Santa" again. For anyone else out there sick of the norm, let's kick the secret out of Santa once and for all. There are many gift-giving alternatives or variations that are both group- and budget-friendly, and which can make a holiday party a lot more memorable

One of the most popular alternatives is a White Elephant Exchange, also known as Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, Devil's Santa, Nasty Christmas, Snatchy Christmas Rat, or The Grinch Game. Similar to Secret Santa, participants only purchase one gift (often within a budget limit) while making sure that the gift is appropriate for anyone in the group. At the holiday event all of the gifts are wrapped and put together in a pile. Some sort of opening order is then determined -- perhaps in order of age, or alphabetical by name, by birth date, or by numbers in a hat.

            The first person opens a gift of their choosing from the pile, shows it to the crowd, and then second person chooses. Person No. 2 can either open a gift from the pile, or they may snatch the gift that was already opened. If they choose to take a gift from someone else, the injured party gets to open another gift from the pile. This game play continues for the rest of the participants until all gifts are gone. Gifts can be stolen from anyone, but generally a limit on "steals" is placed so that a highly desirable gift isn't stolen by every single person. This exchange turns holiday gift-giving into a fun game and involves each participant, all while preserving bank accounts. Most importantly, it's not nearly as boring as regular Secret Santa. White Elephant works especially well for offices and clubs, as group-appropriate gifts are sometimes easier to purchase.

Another alternative is the Christmas Casino Game, which is similar to the White Elephant Exchange but with a bit more risk involved. Again, each participant purchases only one gift, making sure that the item is appropriate for anyone in the group. At the gathering the wrapped gifts are piled together. Each participant is also asked to put a specific amount of money in a pot -- $5 is good enough even for the biggest penny-pinchers. Similar to the White Elephant, participants again need to decide an order in which everyone takes their turn.

            Game play in Christmas Casino gives each person three options: they may choose a gift from the pile, they may put their name in a raffle for the loot of cash, or they can put their name in for a raffle of all unclaimed gifts (as people who go for either of the raffles will not be guaranteed a gift). The gifts are opened and the two raffles are drawn once each person has made their choice.

            This game can be fun for everyone, as conservatives who prefer to avoid risk can simply pick to open a gift, while those who want some excitement can gamble for a larger prize. Some people will walk away with nothing, but it is typically not a problem if no one is a sore loser and the party has plenty of food and fun. This is a game better suited for adults since it is a bit of a gamble.

A fun alternative game that is both exciting and a little goofy is the Christmas Auction. Each participant is asked to bring a few gifts for this game, generally two to four items per person. However, only half of their gifts are "real" gifts that are appropriate for the participants, while the other half are gag gifts. The "real" gifts can be cheap -- yummy treats, books, or scratch-off lottery tickets will suffice. On the other hand, the gag gifts can be completely worthless (think toilet paper, gaudy jewelry, or a toilet seat).

            At the event, all gifts are placed together and every person is given play money that they will use during the auction itself. Monopoly money or fake money printed off a computer works well enough. You can give whatever amount you want to participants depending on how many gifts there are, or how crazy you want the auctioning to get, as more money often means more outrageous bets on worthless crap. Someone will pay $500 for that roll of scotch tape, guaranteed.

            As far as game play, there are two ways of going about it. You can do a silent auction where everyone goes around the table and writes down what they're willing to bet for items. But that's boring. Instead, you can have willing participants take turns playing as an auctioneer with everyone else signaling their bets. The game is more fun with an auctioneer who can describe the gifts and try to make them more or less appealing, plus it makes it more engaging for everyone. While it is possible for someone to walk away with only gag gifts, if enough gifts are available at the beginning, it's an unlikely outcome. This game can be fun for all groups including families, and can be appropriate for kids too as long as they somewhat understand how bidding works.

            If gift exchanges like these are a too much for your group, you can spice up traditional the Secret Santa by making it a theme. Say everyone has to exchange ornaments, food, or other items possibly pertaining to whatever organization your holiday party relates. Or if you want to forego giving gifts altogether, you can also choose to benefit a charity and donate all the gifts involved instead.

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