Gift exchange rules: Secret Santa to White Elephants

Posted by PartyWeDo on Thursday, February 24, 2011


Gift exchange rules

Wrapped Gifts for the gift exchangeThe gift exchange party is the most common way to share unique white elephant gifts among groups of family and friends. These events are held during various holiday celebrations and for office parties, family and class reunions.

more white elephant gift ideas

The most common and popular gift exchange is the Secret Santa gift swap game. It is primarily used to exchange gifts directly from one person to another.  This activity is akin to the standard name draw exchange that many groups use to establish the rules of gift purchasing among groups during important life events. But before we move into the rules of Secret Santa we will start with the most common rules of all gift exchange games, parties or events:


The Name Draw or Drawing Name Exchange

The name draw style gift exchange is used as a means to save money among members of various sized groups. Rather than purchasing a present for everyone, the name draw system randomly parses out the gift purchasing responsibly evenly between each member of the group.  This helps with the gift giving budget because each person only purchase one gift for one person in the group.

The main rule of the name draw is that all members of the groups put their name into a common holding area.  This holding devise could be a hat, or a box, or a bucket.  Newer online versions of the name draw exchange uses an electronic mimic of the hat using special randomizing name drawing software.  Instead of names written on slips of paper, the group adds the names electronically on a website. Here is a fun site the shows a virtual hand going into the hat and pulling out a name.  The online party version of these name draw systems can really be described as a fun generator for any name draw exchange.

There are several online name draw sites that will help simplify your name drawing and simple gift exchanging events. Here are some links to those that we found in a quick Google search for Name Drawing, Secret Santa Name Generator and Random Name Draw Generator:Online secret Santa services

Name drawing .com

Draw names .com

Virtual name draw .com

Sneaky santa .com

Boggol drawing names .com

Boogspace secret santa name picker .com

You can use many of these simple and free online tools to randomly select the names for your name drawing events and never draw names from a hat again. No matter what name holding devise that you use, the rules for the gift exchange remain the same; one name drawn for each potential gift to be shared, so that everyone gets a gift.

The Secret Santa Gift Exchange or Secret Kris Kringle

A gift at the gift exchangeThe next level up from the family name draw is an group gift exchange activity known as the Secret Santa Exchange or in some other parts of the world, the Kris Kringle Gift Exchange. As we mentioned before, the Secret Santa is the most used style of gift exchange in the world.

The main difference between a standard name draw gift exchange and a Secret Santa exchange is the idea of secrecy. In a Secret Santa event the members of the group draw names just like any name draw activity, but you don’t share who you are purchasing an item for. The internet also provides a few online secret Santa organizer sites that can help put the party together. We have listed a few of them here for you to explore:

Secret Santa Organizer .com

Elfster Secret Santa .com

Secret Santa .com

Sly Santa .com

Secret Gift .com

Evite Secret Santa

Kris Kringle gift exchange

NOTE: the Kris Kringle gift exchange is popular in the UK and Australia.

The secret Santa gift exchange follows the same rules as the regular name draw, so there is one item per each person in the group. The parings are selected randomly from all members of a group and there is still the expectation that each person will purchase and deliver a gift to another person. The unique rule in a secret Santa event is that the random name selection is secretive.  There are version of the secret Santa that involve providing clues as to how the shoppers are, with guessing and questioning opportunities provided to ad to the fun.  Some secret Santa exchanges use the rule that no item can be shared until a certain date and time. This is usually a rule when the gift exchange is a part of a group party of other event.

Gift Exchange games that involve random gift swapping

The most complicated set of rules for gift exchange activities are associated with gift swapping parties.  The most common of these swap or “stealing” parties is the White Elephant gift exchange party, but there are at least 22 other party games that use the same basic rules. Here is a list of the various titles of gift swapping parties:

Yankee Swap31 white elephant game titles

Scottish Gift Exchange

Chinese Gift Exchange

Chinese Christmas

Thieving Elves

Dirty Santa

Thieving Secret Santa

Rob Your Neighbor

Dirty Christmas

Pollyanna Swap

Cajun Christmas

Devil’s Santa

California Swap


Snatchy Christmas Rat

Gift Grab

Cutthroat Christmas

Nasty Christmas

Redneck Santa

Rob a Santa

Grinch Exchange

The Grinch Game

No matter the name, the rules follow a basic format and require each members attendance at a group event or party activity. There is even an online white elephant gift party called AlbinoPhant, that also uses these same basic rules of play:

White Elephant Gift Exchange common rules

unusual gifts for the white elephant exchange The rules for a white elephant gift game are pretty standard. All invitees to the party must purchase a gift for sharing. The item should be something that all would find interesting or unique, because nobody knows which gift will eventually be going home with which person. Unusual gifts are great for these gift swap parties because they really help get the conversation going and make the party more interesting.

Gifts at the White Elephant party are required to be wrapped so that the contents will be a surprise when it is opened. There should be no identifying marks on the item so that the purchaser remains anonymous to the other attendees at the gift exchange event.

The game begins with a random name draw for all those in attendance, in order to select the first player.  From this point the game allows gifts to be opened and to be “stolen” , which is the term used to describe the gift swapping rule of the game.  Any item that is opened can be stolen on any players turn. Another basic rule concerning stealing is a restriction that stops any player from stealing-back a gift that was just stolen from them.  The final common rule of the game is that once a item has been held by 3 people it is “frozen” from the stealing process for the rest of the game. This rule does not apply in the case of a white elephant gift exchange game titled Commando, where stealing is allowed up until the end of the game, no matter how many times the item goes around the room.

One final rule that is common in these white elephant style events is the “first shall be last” rule.  This rule says that the first person that opens a gift is given the last chance to exchange any item that is not frozen.  This rule is used to reduce the possibility of the first person missing out on all of the action, if nobody every steals their gift.  There is a school of thought that suggests that this rule is lame, so you can make the decision to use it or not.

There you have it… The most common rules of the Gift Exchange, from simple name draws to complicated gift stealing exchanges.  You can find very complete details of the rules for each of the exchange activities here on this site.

If you have any thoughts, additions, corrections or suggestions, please add them here in the comment box.

Have a great time at your group gift exchange party and remember to play by the rules!

Categories: White Elephant Gift Exchange Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Gift exchange rules: Secret Santa to White ElephantsComment RSS feed

  • Jerna
    May 1st, 2012 5:18 am

    Thanks, I love your article

  • Katherine Moorhouse
    December 26th, 2016 9:11 am

    We add on the most fun part of the White Elephant game. At the end of the game: Large Dice are used (you can make these out of form rubber marking dots) on them or us regular dice. Also you will need an egg timer.

    Turn the egg timer over and the person with the number 1 throws the dice, if they get a 7 or 11 they get to steel a gift and give their gift to the person they stole from (even if it already has the three steel status). Then it is passed to number 2. If nether a 7 or 11 is thrown it passes to the next number. When the timer is up the game stops. This is sooo exciting and helps equal out the game for people who originally drew a low number. Sometimes everyone wants one or two items but we have a four time limit on these steals. When the timer is out it is the end.

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