The swan glided toward me moving to the beat of the music. Jingle Bells blared through the gymnasium speakers as I eagerly awaited my turn to hold the swan, made of white chocolate, of course. It was the yearly Red Stocking Carnival, a holiday charity event held at my school, and I had entered the cakewalk. If the music stopped while I held the life-sized candy swan, it would be mine.
Much to my shock, I actually won! It was the first time I had ever won anything and I kept my prize proudly displayed on the kitchen counter—until it began to melt, forcing me to butcher it into smaller pieces that could be stashed in the fridge and shared with neighbors and friends (it turns out swans are gigantic, and even the hungriest kid couldn’t down that beast by themselves).
I can still remember the thrill of winning that edible swan—and now host some form of cakewalk-style gift exchange at my holiday party every other year or so, changing up the theme, prizes, and music to keep it fresh and exciting for my guests.
The magic we all feel when celebrating birthdays, holidays, and other events as kids can wane as we grow older and the stresses of preparing for big family and social events take hold, but mixing things up with an unexpected game is a great way to shake your guests right back to that juvenile feeling of wonder.
Give it a shot. Instead of exchanging gifts the old fashioned way, give the game ideas below, from cakewalks to Mad Libs, a chance to become your new gifting tradition.
Gift Exchange Variation #1: Host a Victorian Cobweb Social
Dad was tied to the banister, unable to move. Colorful ribbons held him in place. The poor fellow had been the victim of a Victorian Cobweb Social tornado, caught in the middle of a group of kids running around trying to create a confusing tangle of ribbons throughout the living room in this creative gift exchange variation.
He got free, eventually, after we all started looking for our presents, and I was pleasantly surprised that the stodgy-sounding Victorian Cobweb Social my aunt had suggested for a joint birthday party for my cousin and me turned out to be a lot more fun than just being handed presents after cutting the cake.
This game is best for small groups. Not sure how to play? It’s easy!
- Set up a gift exchange on an online platform, then ask all of your guests to bring the gift they’ve chosen for their secret gift recipient, along with a unique spool of ribbon, to the party.
- Everyone sets their presents in one part of the room where the gathering is taking place, attaching one end of the ribbon they brought to the gift (try disguising the gifts in prank wrapping for added laughs).
- Each guest walks around with their ribbon, weaving them together, wrapping them around furniture, and tangling them up in the most confusing manner possible.
- When you are ready to exchange gifts, everyone reveals who they drew for the gift exchange, handing them the ribbon they just wound around the room.
- Once everyone is holding a ribbon that has their present at the end of it, the only task left is managing to untangle it so they can claim their prize!
Put on some music and get ready for a lot of giggling; you’d be surprised at how fun getting twisted up and wound around with ribbon can be, even for a room full of adults. Oh, and keep some scissors around just in case. You don’t want anyone getting tied to the furniture by accident!
Gift Exchange Variations #2: A Creative Left-Right Mad Libs Game
“He eats you when you’re reading/ he knows when you’re cold/ he knows if you’ve been itchy or red/ so be grumpy for goodness sake!” My mom proudly sang out the lyrics to our homemade Christmas Mad Libs game, barely able to contain her laughter as she butchered our rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
When you have a large group of people together, nothing gets the whole crowd laughing like a silly game of Mad Libs. Even those with the most sophisticated senses of humor squeal with mirth when they hear a sentence about a purple chicken who flies to space in a blender or a dog named Jennifer who whistles at bed sheets. So combining Mad Libs with the classic Left-Right gift exchange game is a surefire way to liven up your group; even those who aren’t too familiar with one another will feel like best friends by the time they leave.
To play the Left-Right game, all you have to do is take a story or song and insert the words “right” and “left” into it randomly. For instance, “Happy Birthday” could go “Happy Birthday to LEFT, Happy Birthday to RIGHT, Happy RIGHT LEFT LEFT RIGHT LEFT, Happy Birthday LEFT RIGHT.”
Everyone gets in a circle and holds the present they brought to the party; then, as you read the story or sing the song out loud, every time you say “right” or “left” they have to pass the present in that direction. Whichever present they end up holding at the end of the story or song is the one they get to keep.
To really liven things up, though, use a sheet of Mad Libs instead of a classic song. Write in the words “right” and “left,” then ask the group for suggestions to fill in the blanks on the Mad Libs page before you start the game. That way, when you read it out loud to them, you’re not just having fun giving the directions for the gift exchange, everyone will also be in stitches listening to the funny Mad Lib creation you all made together.
Gift Exchange Variation #3: Fido Fetch for Creative Pet Lovers
Jake, Norman, and Maggie always got the most presents at our house during Christmas. Yes, my biggest competition for gifts during the holidays were my family’s three dogs. None of us human family members could help ourselves; whenever we passed a hilariously over-sized bone, psychedelic squeaky toy, or bulk packs of tennis balls, we had to put them under the tree for our furry friends.
This year, include your canine companions in the celebration by setting up a gift exchange that they can participate in, too.
- Have each party guest bring their pup and a dog-friendly present.
- Assign every pup and human pair a number, then have them write that number on their present and on a tennis ball.
- Go outside with all of your dogs and, on the count of three, throw your tennis balls to different parts of the yard.
- Let the dogs go fetch them. Whichever number is written on the ball they retrieve, give them the corresponding present. The only thing as fun as watching kids play with their new presents is watching dogs enjoy theirs!
Gift Exchange Variation #4: The Cakewalk Gift Card Game
It’s hard not to drool over a well-made dessert, especially one that’s dripping with sprinkles, buttercream roses, crushed candy, or is a life-sized white chocolate swan (no, I can’t stop talking about it; it was truly unforgettable). There is only one way I know to make super sweet treats even more exciting… Hide a gift card somewhere inside!
This creative gift exchange variation is great for small to medium-sized groups. Have everyone coming to your party purchase a gift card for a set price limit. Then, have them create the most outlandish holiday dessert they can think of. The catch? The gift card goes somewhere inside the dessert—wrap it in plastic wrap first—so each sweet is like two presents in one. Then, proceed with the game!
Get a playlist ready with as many songs as there are guests. Have everyone stand in a circle and, starting with one cake per song, pass the cake around the circle as the song plays. When the music stops, whoever is holding the cake wins it as their prize. They can sit down now, while the remaining players repeat the game until everyone has a prize.
It’s hilarious to see grown-ups scrambling as fast as they can to get the cakes they want, or to strategically slow down to stop a cake from getting to someone else. Just play on an easy-to-clean surface. If things get too crazy, your carpet might take a hit!
I’m all about traditions, from the cinnamon rolls my family eats each Christmas morning to the specific brand of scented candles I place around the house for Thanksgiving. But, sometimes, it’s fun to shake things up, and these creatively unique gift exchange variations can breathe new life into your holiday gatherings.
As much as we love to reminisce, celebrations (even holidays you make up on your own) are about making new memories with the people you love. Whether that means frantically passing around a chocolate cake stuffed with a Starbucks gift card or watching your dog tear open a package containing a 5-pound bone, these games are so fun they’ll make you eager to keep trying new things when the next holiday rolls around.
Don’t know what to bring to the gift exchange? Check out Elfster’s Gift Guides For Her and For Him to find the perfect present. You can share your finds with us on Elfster’s Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, and on Instagram @Elfster.