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How to Play Secret Santa

How to Play Secret Santa

From exchanging gifts with family members to colleagues, and friends, gifting is one thing most people I know look forward to during Christmas.

While many choose to exchange gifts where the recipient knows the gift giver, my family prefers to make things more exciting by playing Secret Santa.

If this is your first time hearing of Secret Santa, you may wonder what it is. I will explain one of the most suspense-filled, fun, and stealthy gift exchange games in this article.

What Is Secret Santa?

Secret Santa is a fun game where a group of people (typically friends, family, or co-workers) come together to exchange gifts secretly. It is typically played during the holiday season.

The basic rules behind Secret Santa see the participants secretly draw names from a lot. Then each participant will get a gift for the person whose name they drew from the lot.

Historically, Secret Santa may have its origins from Julklapp (Christmas knock). Julklapp was a Swedish Christmas gift exchange tradition typified by secrecy. People would knock on doors or windows; when the door opened, they’d quickly throw in a well-wrapped gift and run away.

Secret Santa may also have emanated from the tradition of St. Nick’s Helpers. Whatever the origin might be, the Christmas gift exchange tradition has continued to evolve in various ways.

Before, the Secret Santa game was primarily physical. In other words, people had to see each other to be participants of the Secret Santa game. However, these days, people can remotely participate in Secret Santa, thanks to online Secret Santas.

Secret Santa Game Rules

The rules guiding Secret Santa gift exchanges may vary slightly from one group to another. But in the end, certain rules remain at the core of the Secret Santa game. Here are some of the core Secret Santa rules:


It wouldn’t be a true Secret Santa gift exchange if the participants knew who is getting them a gift from the start. In other words, secrecy is important for a Secret Santa game.

Of course, the gift-givers will know who they are getting a gift for. But the giftee must never know the identity of the giver.

Include Gift Ideas

With the secrecy involved in the game, gift givers cannot ask the recipients what their perfect gift would be. At the same time, they’d surely want to ensure they get something the giftee would like.

So, instead of letting the gift givers’ minds run wild, have the players include wish lists or complete a questionnaire (I attached one below). The wish lists should have at least one gift suggestion or as many as three suggestions.

Having a wish list makes it easier for the givers to get something desirable for their giftees.

Fix a Budget

You may set a maximum budget for the gift ideas. With a spending limit, no one will go to the extreme when coming up with gift suggestions.

Having a spending limit may not be compulsory, but it is helpful. If there’s one, everyone must stick to it. We usually agree to a limit of $20.00.

There Must Be a Deadline

Ensure there’s a deadline. This way, everyone can get gifts in time for the day of the Secret Santa gift exchange.

No Name Swapping

The players might try to swap the name they drew amongst each other. But this should not be allowed. It may dampen the spirit of the game.

How to Play Secret Santa Gift Exchange

Collect the Names of the Players

Let all the participants write their name on a piece of paper. Ensure the names are written legibly. Illegible names may cause people to address the gifts to the wrong recipients.

Place the papers with all the names in a bowl or any other item that you can use for a draw.

The Wish List or Questionnaire

Have each participant write a wish list or fill out a questionnaire. Having about three gift suggestions on the wish list would be nice. But one suggestion should be fine in most cases. It makes things easier if everyone is specific.

The Draw

Let each player draw a name from the lot bowl. Of course, they should keep the name they draw a secret. However, if a player draws their own name, they’d have to pick another name from the lot.

Pick a Deadline and Gift Exchange Party Date

As mentioned under the Secret Santa rules section, pick a deadline for getting the gifts. This way, there would be no last-minute gift buying, which can delay the gift exchange party.

Also, while picking a deadline, pick a date for the gift exchange if both would be on different days.

Guess Who Got You Your Gift

A Secret Santa game does not end on the day the players draw names from the lot. It goes on until the gifts are exchanged.

A game of Secret Santa peaks during the gift exchange as the players try to guess their Secret Santa. This might even be the most interesting part of the whole thing.

Creative Secret Santa Gift Ideas (Under U$20)

Here are some of gift ideas I put together for this year:

  • These tiny hands are perfect if you are trying to give your giftee a good laugh.
  • Here’s another gag gift you can get for Secret Santa.
  • If your giftee is a nurse that loves wine, then this is the perfect gift.
  • An electric wine opener is another gift to consider for a wine lover.
  • This microwave popcorn popper would be a great gift for anyone. But if your giftee is that specific person who loves staying home and watching movies, they’d love this so much.
  • If you find it hard to settle on something to buy, you could get an Amazon gift card.

Secret Santa Questions (for Adults)

While each participant may draw up a wish list, it still helps to try to gain insight on one’s giftee. With that, everyone stands a better chance of getting a thoughtful present instead of something regular.

For the players who are already friends with their giftee, getting the perfect present should be easy. But for those who are not friends with their giftee, asking questions should make things easier.

Here are some Secret Santa questions that can help Secret Santa players know their giftees better:

  1. What do people often state about you?
  2. What movie have you watched the most times?
  3. Which TV show do you love the most?
  4. What do you think about the sentiments behind homemade gifts?
  5. What is the one thing you never get bored doing?
  6. How do you like to unwind during the weekends and holidays?
  7. What are your favorite beverages?
  8. How often do you wear jewelry?
  9. Do you enjoy sports?
  10. What’s your favorite sports team?
  11. What’s that one thing that can make your meal prep faster?
  12. What’s your favorite color?
  13. Do you use nail polish?
  14. Which fashion item would you rather run through your purse for?
  15. Where is your favorite place to shop?
  16. What’s your favorite artform – music, writing, visual art, or any other artform?
  17. Who’s your favorite artist?
  18. What would you prefer to do if your schedule were always free?
  19. Which controversial opinion do you strongly believe in?
  20. What new hobby are you looking to try out soon?

The players might be able to ask their giftees some of these questions without undoing the mystery. But it’s better to have the questions in a questionnaire filled by every player.

How to Play a Secret Santa Gift Exchange Online

two friends play Secret Santa online

As we said before, people can do Secret Santa remotely. This is all thanks to technological advancements in the form of tools like a Secret Santa generator.

There isn’t a world of difference between online Secret Santa games and physical ones. However, there are slight differences in how to play them. So, besides all we mentioned in the previous section, here’s how to play online Secret Santa:

Inviting the Players

The invitation is one of the differences between online Secret Santa and regular Secret Santa. When playing Secret Santa remotely, the players are not physically present. So, you’d have to invite them all to be present at the time of the draw.

Of course, the players will provide a wish list of their preferred gifts within the set budget limit.

The Draw

In regular Secret Santa, the players typically have to be physically present for the draw. However, when playing online, the host will pick names for everyone. Of course, this means the host may not participate.

When doing Secret Santa remotely, the host may choose to do the draw with automated Secret Santa tools (a Secret Santa generator). This would make the draw faster and easier. It also precludes the chances of the players drawing their own names.

Pick a Deadline and Exchange Gifts

As with regular Secret Santa, there should be a deadline for buying gifts. There should also be a fixed date for exchanging the Secret Santa gifts.

When done remotely, Secret Santa players can be in any part of the world. The players should plan ahead, so they can plan the delivery within the game’s timeline.

Host a Party and Guess Who Got You Your Gift

Now to the fun part. After every player has gotten their gift, host a virtual Secret Santa party. During the party, have each person guess who got them their gift.

Secret Santa Variations

White Elephant

White Elephant is a variation of Secret Santa that comes with a lot of twists and turns. Each person comes with an unlabeled gift box (typically containing a funny gift). Then going by a rule the group chooses, each person picks a gift from the pile and opens it.

After the first person picks, the next person may choose to open another gift or they may steal the gift picked by the first person. Then it goes on and on until everyone has had their turn.

Those who have had their gift stolen can steal a gift from someone else or pick a new gift from the pile. But it doesn’t go on like this; after stealing or picking a new gift thrice in turn, the turn ends.

There’s more to the game; we’ve only described the primary rules.

Yankee Swap

Yankee Swap is similar to White Elephant because it also features unlabeled gifts. However, unlike White Elephant, Yankee Swap gifts are not gags.

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