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Holiday Gift Giving: Secret Santa Vs White Elephant

It's time to deck the halls, go shopping and give gifts. But how you gift those presents may depend on who else is also doing the gift giving and the budgets of everyone involved. Both Secret Santa and White Elephant gift exchanges are popular, but how should you decide between the two when it comes to your next holiday party?

Secret Santa

Secret Santa
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A few weeks in advance of the party and the gift exchange, throw everyone’s names into a bowl and have everyone pick a name of who they’ll be shopping for. Alternatively, someone who isn’t involved in the exchange can assign who buys for whom. The key is keeping who’s shopping for whom all secret, because that’s half the fun.

Because of the secrecy, Secret Santa typically works best in a group of friends or family who know each other well. After all, since the exchange is supposed to stay secret until after the gift is given, people shouldn’t be going around asking what such and such person likes for gifts; and, in turn, if the person doesn’t know who they’re shopping for very well, a lot of gift cards might be exchanged. Meaning, when it comes time to guess who gave you that gift? It’ll be particularly hard to guess accurately. 

White Elephant

Gift Exchange
Photo Credit Thinkstock

A white elephant gift exchange can be even more entertaining, because it’s a game of sorts. But before you play that game, rules need to be set, because invariably everyone plays it in different ways. For starters, decide if the gifts will be used or re-gifted items; alternatively, you can set a small budget, like $10, for each gift. Also decide on what kind of gifts, or give everyone a theme, like gifts have to be something you can put on your head, or in your hands (get creative!) No matter what the theme, white elephant exchanges tend to involve quirky or one-of-a-kind gifts. 

At the time of the exchange, additional rules will need to be decided. Things to consider: how many times a gift can be stolen (or if they can be stolen at all), or if people can switch gifts they’ve received with someone else at the end of the game.

When game time comes around, put numbers into a bowl, specifically the number of people playing. Everyone then draws a number. Number one will choose a gift first from the pile, and so on down the line. But people can either choose to steal a gift, or pick from the gift pile (but they can’t open a gift and then decide to ‘steal’ someone else’s). The fun in this is often in the stealing.

Since this is a game, and you’re not buying for a specific person, this is the perfect activity for a holiday party where not everyone knows everyone else. But it can also work well at a family gathering where there’s a lot of family members, and people are on a budget; this way everyone still gets a gift.

No matter which gift exchange you choose, you’re sure to have some fun this holiday season.

Elizabeth SanFilippo is a freelance writer, who enjoys trying new foods from all over the world. But her favorite city for culinary treats will always be Chicago. When not writing about food, she's writing about a variety of topics for numerous websites and blogs, and working part-time at a culinary vacation company based in the Windy City. Some of her work can be found at

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