A few years ago, my wife and I hosted a tree trimming party. We had never done one before, so we looked up how to make our tree trimming party fun and memorable. Our guests were excited because we were one of the few in our circle of friends who had a real tree. So, perhaps carried away by the scent of pine (okay, and the egg nog), we expanded the party by adding a Secret Santa gift exchange.
What happened next could only be described as “a pointless flurry of hats.”
Let me explain: we decided to put names in hats to match everyone up. Several people wrote down names on different pieces of paper, leading to duplicates and misses. After a few false starts, we decided it would be easier to draw names from a virtual hat.
Using the right virtual name drawer means more than matching givers and giftees. The right Secret Santa sets you up for a successful party. It facilitates giving. It facilitates fun. It keeps the pine-scented memories peaking throughout the whole season.
The 4 Best Ways to Draw Names From a Virtual Hat
First off, we have nothing against real hats. But they aren’t always practical, and they limit your drawing to people who are physically present. If you want to draw-by-proxy, you have to find someone to keep track of things, ruining some of the surprise.
Even if you don’t care about surprises—some people don’t, we understand—it’s just a pain to keep everything in line. Maybe you think your holiday could use some more pressure, but we sure don’t!
So, using a virtual hat helps you expand the circle, simplifies things for everyone, and promises a surprise for all players. But while using a virtual hat is super easy, not all of them do exactly what you need. Here are some of the best ways to draw names from a virtual hat.
1. Random Name Generator
A random name generator is an easy way to get your Secret Santa going. Basically, you go to a site (most of them are free) and enter your name and the names of the people with whom you’ll be playing. Some of them make it simple to set up groups, others are challenging.
- Pros. Free and easy, and it’s impossible to draw your own name. Some of the better generators can set it up for a group to play without requiring one person to organize it all.
- Cons. It’s just an algorithm on a no-frills site. That’s fine for what it is, but it doesn’t capture the spirit of the season. Also, of all the ones we looked at, very few could do exclusions, and the ones that did were limited to “don’t draw who you drew last year.” That means everyone in your group is in the same draw.
2. A True Virtual Hat
There are simpler algorithms that mimic a hat almost exactly. You put in a bunch of names with the emails of your participants and the algorithm shoots them an email with the name that was picked. It’s 100% random.
- Pros. This is truly random, which means every group could have every conceivable combination. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
- Cons. Well, for starters, you can potentially draw your own name. Also, it’s not the best way to start a Secret Santa, especially because you don’t have immediate access to a person’s wish list. There would have to be a shared document where everyone puts their ideas. It’s a bit of a hassle, especially for the person in charge.
3. Wheel of Names
There are a lot of Wheel of Name type things on the internet. You put in everyone’s name, hit spin, and it whiz-click-slows down to one name. Whoever hits “Spin” gets the name on which the fateful wheel stops.
- Pros. It’s fun! Look at the wheel spin. There’s a lot of suspense in a goofy sort of way. And if you enter new names every time someone draws, you can essentially set up exclusion lists (i.e. when it’s Jill’s turn don’t put her wife on the wheel).
- Cons. But the thrill is only for one person. Someone has to set it up so that not everyone sees what is happening. There isn’t a shareable way to do this for groups. And if it’s just one person having fun, what’s the point? And, needless to say, there’s no way to create or share wish lists.
4. A True Secret Santa Generator
There are virtual hats that facilitate every part of your gift exchange. These are designed specifically with Secret Santa gift exchanges in mind. Or, more to the point, they are designed to make your Secret Santa go perfectly.
But they aren’t all created equally. Here are a few things you should look for in a virtual hat:
- Is there a well-functioning name draw generator? That is, can you generate exclusion lists easily? Will it automatically remove the possibility of reciprocal matching? Can you organize your groups in a simple, intuitive way?
- Does it need a boss? A good name generator makes the picking anonymous for everyone. No one has to keep track of things because the system does it all for you. Everyone is on equal footing when it comes to being surprised.
- Does it help you get started? Not everyone knows how to play Secret Santa. But the best ones make it easy with guides on how to get going.
- Does it fit with your life? Not everyone is tied to a laptop. The best virtual Secret Santa exchanges let you use a draw names app so you can play on the go.
- Does it set your Secret Santa up for success? Sure, you have names, but do you have wish lists? Do you have gift guides? Can you update your list if you think of something later? Can you ask anonymous questions? Do you have everything you need to make Secret Santa easy and fun for everyone?
If you’ve found a virtual hat that checks all these boxes, then congratulations! Your Secret Santa gift exchange is going to be that much easier.
Getting Your Virtual Name Draw Right
Virtual name draws help you bring your Secret Santa party to loved ones around the world. But to do it truly right, you have to make sure you have a few things:
- Secrecy for everyone
- The ability to set exclusion lists
- No reciprocal matching
- Anonymous communication
- Gift guides
- Shareable wish lists
The whole point is to have fun. That’s why we made our tree-trimming party into a Secret Santa. If you use the right system, you can make drawing names something special. The hat may be virtual, but the fun it generates and the memories you create are real and lasting.
The Elfster virtual hat helps you draw names and so much more. Our online Secret Santa generator makes your Secret Santa even easier, and you can start a Wish List to get and give the best gifts. Don’t forget that you can play on the go with our iPhone app or Android app.