Many families are using a tradition called “Secret Santa” to relieve holiday stress and bring more fun into the season. Learn how to organize a Secret Santa exchange.

Gift exchanges around the Christmas season are an evolution from a European tradition of the Christkind (“the Christ Child”), or Father Christmas who would sneak little gifts to children. As the tradition spread throughout the world it became many things including Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and finally, Santa Claus, who has grown into a multi-million dollar spending spree.

Gift-giving is a wonderful way to show love and care for family and friends, but many will agree that it has gone out of control and grown beyond the capacity of our bank accounts. Many families and groups are bringing in a new tradition called “Secret Santa” to both rein in the spending and end up with better gifts.

The concept is simple: Instead of buying a gift for every person in the family or group, names are put in a hat and each person gives and receives one anonymous gift. It’s better to give and receive one nice gift than twenty cheap (and relatively useless) items.

How To Set Up A Secret Santa Exchange

There are a few simple rules needed to set up a Secret Santa exchange.

  • First, and most important: everyone involved must agree to the idea!
  • One person has to be in charge of the setup.
  • A spending limit must be set (usually twenty to thirty dollars)
  • Ample time should be given to participants to get their presents bought and delivered!

Most families and groups can agree to the basic rules and then should work out the details in ways that suit their situation. Once the guidelines are agreed upon the setup is quite easy.

1. Names are put in a hat (box, cup, online generator, whatever)
2. A name is drawn for each participant
3. The names are kept secret
4. Each participant finds a great gift for that person and delivers it in the agreed-upon time and method.
5. If all goes well everyone gets a great gift.

The Group Setting

A Secret Santa gift exchange is most fun when everyone is present to draw the names from the hat, and then all together for the gift exchange. The only trick in this situation is to keep folks from blabbing about whose name they have drawn! One blabber can ruin the fun for everyone because once the secret is out it becomes pretty easy to guess who has who.

It is also very important, in a close situation, to make sure people understand there are no repercussions from not wanting to participate. It’s also very important that people be big-hearted and refrain from any criticism if their gift does not quite suit them. Maybe a good idea would be to make everyone do a pinky swear that they will keep it fun!

The Extended Family

Many families have members all around the country or even spread across the globe. In this case, a Secret Santa exchange becomes a bit more complicated and must be set up with plenty of time for people to get the word, and for gifts to be both bought (or made) and shipped.

The person setting up the exchange will call everyone, or send them an email, and ask them if they want to participate. Names are put in the hat and drawn out by proxy.

Keep in mind that setting up the first year will be harder. After everyone has learned how it works keeping the tradition going is very simple.

Can You Cheat?

Of course… In fact, “cheating” very often needs to be done so it shouldn’t really be called cheating. It’s more like rearranging. In smaller families, people may end up drawing the same relative several years in a row. A quick rearranging of slips can solve this problem. Or maybe Uncle Bob and Sister Betty are both between jobs; give them each other so they don’t feel they have to spend the full cost on the gift.

Our family has a growing number of small children so that the adults can’t buy a nice gift for each child. This year we are arranging a special adult/child Secret Santa to get the kids something nice. This exchange only goes one way, from the adult to the child.

Above All Keep it Happy

If the gift exchange becomes a problem, stop doing it. A Secret Santa exchange probably won’t work in a family that completely forgets to buy gifts, or who is too critical of the results, or who dumps the organization on an unwilling member. The whole purpose of it is to relieve stress, so it should be quickly called to a halt at the first sign of tears!

Most importantly, enjoy the gift exchange and let it create a sense of giving and love throughout the family.