We gathered around my mom, anxiously shifting from foot to foot as she shook a red and green bag filled with slips of paper. On each slip was written a name—the name of the person we would need to buy a present for as part of our annual Secret Santa game. Finding out who I was assigned to was always my favorite part (other than opening my present, that is!). But after we drew names, my mom unleashed a surprise: this year, she was putting a twist on our Secret Santa game and making it into a funny Christmas gift exchange.
Instead of setting a price limit and letting everyone get whatever they wanted, we had to try to get the silliest gift possible. Then, we’d all vote on what we thought was the funniest gift, and the person who bought it would get a gift card to our favorite pizza place. I thought I would win big when I presented my (balding) father with a curly red clown wig, but it turns out I was bested by my cousin, who got my mom a moose mating call whistle!
It was one of the best Secret Santa games we’ve ever played, and it’s all thanks to my mom’s last minute twist on the traditional rules. It helped make the game less about the gifts and more about delighting everyone in the group with our creativity. Plus, it gave us all a chance to bond as a group working with a specific theme. This year, if you want to put a twist on your Secret Santa game, try one of these ideas to reinvigorate a holiday classic.
A Charitable Secret Santa
“I already have too much stuff as it is!” my sister exclaimed. She was trying to come up with some easy last-minute Christmas gifts to add to her Secret Santa wish list, but she was drawing a blank.
That’s when we decided that instead of giving physical gifts, that year we would donate an agreed-upon amount of money to a charity in honor of our Secret Santa gift recipient. The idea was that we would choose an organization we thought they’d like.
I made a donation to the local animal shelter in honor of my mom because that’s where she adopted her beloved dog. Seeing her get all teary-eyed with emotion when she opened the card announcing where I’d donated, along with a “thank you!” note from the worker who had originally rescued her dog, was like a present in itself.
A Re-Gifted Secret Santa
My husband’s family are recycling fanatics. They’ve constructed an elaborate three-chamber mini recycling facility in their barn (they live in a big old farmhouse in Maine), and their inclination to reduce, reuse, and recycle pretty much everything eventually found its way into our Christmas celebrations.
Not only do we always use newspapers and other recycled things to wrap our presents, but one year we decided to do a Secret Santa game using only items we already owned. My mother-in-law’s logic was that we all had a lot of nice belongings we never actually used, and instead of buying something new, we should try to find a present among our current belongings that would delight our Secret Santa recipient. We also didn’t organize our swap until the last minute, meaning we didn’t have a ton of time to spend shopping at the mall.
It was a really fun challenge and also a great excuse to take stock of all of our possessions to see how much we just didn’t need. I ended up giving a never-used ice cream maker to my dessert-obsessed sister-in-law, and I received a gorgeous old handmade quilt from my mother-in-law, who had so many from her mother that she didn’t have enough storage space for them. Putting a twist on our Secret Santa game made it feel like a two-part scavenger-hunt—first searching among our own belongings for the perfect gift, then finally unveiling a prize of our own at the end. And we did it all without increasing our impact on the environment, which is always a win in my book.
A Secret Santa Picnic
My insatiable urge to start celebrating Christmas again usually begins around March. But I manage to restrain myself until the summer when it’s socially acceptable to celebrate Christmas in July.
But one year, I had an idea—what if instead of Christmas in July, we added a little summertime celebration to Christmas? A Christmas picnic, with a festive blanket spread on the floor next to the tree and plenty of special holiday goodies to eat would be a fun new tradition for kids and adults alike, I thought.
We decided to put a twist on our Secret Santa game, making it a fusion between the traditional gift-swap and a potluck. Instead of a gift, we’d each bring something edible for our Secret Santa recipient, be it their favorite cookies, a homemade holiday bento box, or a selection of gourmet treats. I made cocoa, and we all sat down, hungrily opening our presents and squealing with pleasure when we saw the edible goodies contained within. The kids loved eating on the floor, and for us grownups, giving a gift of food was a lot easier than having to do a full mall shopping trip, making it the perfect last-minute Secret Santa twist.
The Joy of Putting a Twist on a Secret Santa Game
Now, every year my family alternates between a traditional gift swap, which we organize on Elfster to make it super simple, and a Secret Santa game with a fun twist. The traditional swap is just as cozy and fun as ever, and the years when we shake things up always lead to excitement.
But my favorite thing about changing things up every now and then is that it’s helped my family shift our focus from the presents we get during Secret Santa to the experience we share when finding gifts for each other and getting into the spirit of the game. At the end of the day, it’s not about what we actually unwrap—it’s all about spending time with our loved ones and enjoying being together during the holiday season.
Still not sure what to get for your Secret Santa recipient this year? Check out Elfster’s Christmas Gift Guides for inspiration, and don’t forget to share your favorite ideas with us on Elfster’s Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfster, and on Twitter @Elfster.