Secret Santa Saved My Family Gift Exchange

Secret Santa Saved My Family Gift Exchange

My family isn’t great at gift exchanges. We tend to buy gifts too late (“Merry Christmas, here’s a print-out of what you’ll get in January!”) or misjudge each other’s tastes. We have trouble matching our budgets – do I need to drop as much money on a cousin’s new boyfriend as I do on my mother? And if I’m not going home for Christmas this year, do I really need to mail a dozen separate gifts? One year I just forgot to include a family member, embarrassing everyone involved.

Photo by Les Anderson

For the last few years, we’ve solved all this with a secret Santa exchange, where each person buys just one gift for one family member. The young and broke members of the family are relieved to spend less, and the more sentimental members get to spend more time making that one gift count. Secret Santa saved Christmas. And it can save yours, with your family or co-workers or friend group.

If you’re together all the time, you can pull names out of a hat. If not, there are plenty of sites that will randomly assign gifters and keep track of wish lists. We use DrawNames, but you can use the slightly slicker Elfster or the bright and friendly They all get the job done.

Secret Santa Saved My Family Gift Exchange
Elfster’s thorough interface

Elfster’s thorough interface

Some simple rules to follow:

  • Pick a responsible person to oversee the exchange. My family’s exchange would fall apart if my brother didn’t keep texting us to sign up already. And if anyone doesn’t follow through, their recipient is going to feel terrible.
  • Set a budget limit that everyone can meet. Ours is $40.
  • Encourage everyone to fill out a wish list on the site. I like to list a half-dozen options, including some easy purchases such as a favourite book, and some that might take more effort. Then my secret Santa gets to choose their comfort level.
  • But also encourage people to depart from the wish list if they want. It’s more fun that way.
  • If you don’t know what to get someone, ask around. Your recipient is only getting one gift, so don’t half-arse it.
  • If some people really want to opt out and buy everyone gifts, let them.
  • Skip the white elephant gift exchange thing (where everyone gets a chance to steal each other’s gifts). It’s so inevitably awkward that there’s an Office episode about it:

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