Which Game is Right for You – Yankee Swap, White Elephant Gift Exchange, or Secret Santa?

Some smart people are changing the spirit of gift giving from “It’s the THOUGHT that counts” to “It’s the FUN that counts.” You would be amazed by how the right gift exchange game can transform the most boring party (or people :o) into a great time remembered by all.

Another bonus with a gift exchange is you typically only have to buy one gift to participate. If you have a tradition of getting gifts for a large group of people, this is a HUGE shopping relief.

So get your college gang together, round up your co-workers, invite over your BFF’s, or liven up your next family holiday with a gift exchange. Let the fun begin!

Planning a Gift Exchange

Who to Invite

Whether you are partying with your office co-workers, family, or friends, starting a gift exchange game begins with inviting people to participate. You want to bring together a party of at least 6 people or the game won’t be as much fun. More is better, but you will want to choose the right type of game for more than 12 people or the fun will wear out.

What to Bring 

Each person invited is asked to bring a wrapped gift. If you have a smaller party, you may extend the fun by having each person bring a couple of gifts. In the case of Secret Santa, the gift is for a specific person. In all other gift exchanges, the gift is for anyone at the party.

The party planner specifies the expectation for gifts. This includes:

  • Used/re-gifted items or new gifts
  • Budget limit ($20 is common) for new gifts
  • Gift theme if desired: funny, practical, booze or wine, naughty, gardening essentials, or whatever you are into. A theme is not required though.

When to Play

Gift exchanges are meant to be social, and they make a great icebreaker for people who don’t already know each other well. By the end you will have great inside jokes to share about the gift everyone wanted to steal, the most ridiculous gift, the ugliest gift, etc. At my former office, the ugly lamp was a coveted trophy that everyone fought to get at the gift exchange and displayed proudly in their office all year. Everyone at the party was in on the joke and would talk about it whenever they saw the lamp.

In that spirit, playing the gift exchange game early during a party creates plenty of fun conversation afterward. Families may have a tradition of exchanging gifts after a holiday dinner. The gift exchange doesn’t have to follow that protocol though since it is meant to be a game more than actual gift-giving.

Whenever you choose to start the game, plan for an hour of fun. The game and rules you choose will help keep everyone entertained and will hit the Goldilocks sweet spot – neither too short nor too long to maximize the fun.

Running the Gift Exchange Game

Set up for your gift exchange is simple:

  1. Prepare for drawing names or numbers
  2. Set the rules for the exchange  

The most important rule to remember is this:

It’s your game so define the rules so your party guests have the most fun.

If Monopoly can change up the ways to play to suit different players, you certainly have the freedom to do the same for your gift exchange.

Secret Santa

This version of gift exchanges, also known as Kris Kringle, is different than the rest. Most often it is the choice for kids’ gift exchanges. Each player buys a gift for a specific person based on a name drawing. The party guests bring their wrapped gifts to the party with nothing but the recipient’s name on the package. The game part is to try to guess the name of the Secret Santa who gave you your gift.

The upside of Secret Santa is you can get a gift that is more personalized and consider whether you are giving it to a boy or a girl. Kids’ feelings may get hurt from the swap versions of gift exchanges, so this version keeps it tame. The downside of Secret Santa is the same as for any gift giving: you may not be thrilled with the gift that someone chose for you.

Name drawing needs to happen before the party so guests are able to shop for the specific person they drew. Online apps are now available to help with this. is the one my family uses. Otherwise you may make the name drawing part of your Thanksgiving tradition so gifts can be bought before Christmas.

Yankee Swap

If you have more than 15 guests, this version of a gift exchange is a good choice. You start by having each guest draw a number from a hat or bowl. The drawing numbers equal the number of players.

If you have 10 or fewer guests and want to extend the fun, you can have each guest bring multiple gifts. Then the numbers to draw equal the number of gifts, and each guest draws a number for each gift they contributed.

Lucky No. 1 chooses a wrapped gift and unwraps it. Then the 2nd player has a choice: select a wrapped gift and unwrap it or swap the wrapped gift for someone else’s already unwrapped gift. The person who lost their gift now gets to unwrap the new one. That concludes the exchange round and the player with the next number then chooses a wrapped gift and either unwraps it or swaps it with someone else’s gift.

Once all of the gifts are unwrapped, Lucky No. 1 gets the last chance to swap the gift they have with any other gift that has been opened.

The drama and excitement comes from anticipating whether the active player is going to unwrap her gift, or swap it for some other gift she is eyeing up. Will she go for the known or take a chance on the unknown?

White Elephant Gift Exchange (a.k.a. Dirty Santa)

Throw civility out the window – this exchange is all about the stealing. The game begins by drawing numbers, just as with the Yankee Swap. Each exchange round will take longer though, due to the stealing. If you have more than 12 people playing, you will want to add some constraints to the rules so you aren’t playing for hours.

Again, Lucky No. 1 chooses a gift and unwraps it. The next player can choose: steal the already unwrapped gift or choose a new wrapped gift. If your gift is stolen, you now make the choice: steal someone else’s gift or take a new wrapped gift. Stealing other people’s gifts is so much fun that your guests can get carried away. That’s why the following stealing rules are commonly added:

  • No gift can be stolen twice in the same round.
  • Once a gift has been stolen three times in the game, it is frozen and no longer on the market for stealing.

Another fun stealing rule to add, if your guests are into it, is the Do a Shot per Steal Rule: the stealer needs to do a shot for each of the number of times a gift has already been stolen to claim it as their own. Freezing a gift after it has been stolen three times helps keep this addition to the game from getting out of hand.

Fill up a Santa’s Flask® with booze or shooters. Each time a player takes a stolen gift, they take the required hits from the spout. Or you can be civil and fill a shot glass instead.

Once everyone with a number has played, Lucky No.1 gets the last chance to steal. The only gifts that are off limits are the ones that are frozen from being stolen three times. The person stolen from gets No.1’s gift and the game ends.

You can see how a White Elephant Gift Exchange can kick up the raucous. The best part is that the pressure is off to find the perfect gift for someone. The real gift of your gift exchange party is creating a jolly fun time with people you want to spend time with. That is the best holiday gift of all.

BTW – if you are looking for a great gift to bring to your next Gift Exchange, we have just the thing for you.

Perfect White Elephant

Bought this last year for a gift exchange at work, by far the best white elephant gift anyone in the office had. We immediately put it to use and everyone loved it. It fits 3 bottles of wine!!


I always have trouble finding a clever Secret Santa gift. This is ideal! High quality, and fantastic for holiday parties.

Great Holiday gift for drinking friends

For your favorite Holiday Spirit fan. Started as a gag gift. See new family tradition.

What a great gift from Santa!

This thing is a real HOOT!!! Everyone got a laugh out of it. Would make a great Christmas present.

It’s a hysterical gift idea for anyone who loves wine.

This will be a “Secret Santa” gift for an annual Christmas party with many wine aficionados. I anticipate whomever gets this as his gift will be the envy of everyone else.

5 Stars

Huge hit as a Secret Santa Gift!

Everyone that I met thought it was awesome and asked where I bought it

I bought this for a holiday party last year, and everyone that I met thought it was awesome and asked where I bought it. Was definitely a big hit, even at holiday parties with adults. Can really liven them up! I also kept it and used it for Santa Con, and people loved it. Great gift or great to buy for yourself. Definitely will be buying a few of these this year!

Perfect gift!

I gave this away as gifts at my Christmas party and it was definitely a hit!

Other Less Common Names for Gift Exchanges

  • Grinch Game
  • Thieving Elves
  • Snatchy Christmas Rat
  • Cutthroat Christmas
  • Redneck Santa
  • Machiavellian Christmas
  • Kamikaze Gift Exchange
  • Chinese Auction
  • Greedy Punter
  • Pollyanna
  • Naughty Santa
  • Thieving Secret Santa
  • Thieves’ Christmas
  • Rob Your Neighbor
  • Steal-a-Thon 

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

View Details
Sold Out