Secret Santa is one of the most enduring Christmas traditions across the world. In its purest form, it is a game in which someone gives an anonymous gift to a pre-designated recipient, then the recipient tries to guess who the giver is.
The tradition is popular at office holiday parties, among groups of friends, and within families, and online. The exchange is often held on or just before Christmas in America and during the earlier weeks of December in the rest of the world. The history of this tradition reveals some interesting facts as well as the positive effects of this time-honored event.
A Not-So-Secret History
The roots of this holiday season tradition are found in 18th century Europe. In Germany and Scandinavia, it remains as much about fun and humor as goodwill. One of the oldest variations comes from the Swedish tradition called Julklapp (literally, “Christmas knocking”). This early December ritual involved knocking on a neighbor’s door, opening the door, and unceremoniously throwing a gift into the middle of the room.
A funny written message or rhyme often accompanied the delivery. Because the point of Julklapp was to remain anonymous, the giver would then hide or run away. This December game was first referenced in 1741. This is the earliest known mention of this type of tradition, though there are some similar but non-Christmas gift-giving celebrations that date back to the Middle Ages.
Related traditions existed in northern Europe starting in the 18th century. These include holidays surrounding the Germanic witchel, fairies who surreptitiously help Santa Claus delivery gifts. In Portugal, Spain, and the Latin American countries, a Secret Santa variant called amigo secreto (“secret friend”) is played.
The modern, American iteration of this tradition appears to have started with a philanthropist named Larry Dean Stewart (1948-2007). Starting in 1979 in Kansas City, Stewart gave anonymous Christmas gifts to the needy, usually in the form of $20, $50, or $100 bills. Shortly before his passing in 2007, he founded an international organization called the Society of Secret Santas, who give gifts anonymously to people all over the world.
In the English-speaking world, Secret Santa has gained widespread cultural importance.
For decades, it has been a mainstay of office Christmas parties and school holidays. For businesses, it is used to build team chemistry, boost morale, celebrate the successes of the year, and get in the Christmas spirit. In schools, it helps build camaraderie and gives children something to look forward to amidst the stress of midterm exams.
Secret Santas among families are a way to save money and lower stress during the season. They often have a humorous turn because, quite frankly, the gifts are sometimes horrifically bad. A misjudged or mismatched gift has the potential to leave family members laughing about it for years.
Today, there are many versions of this holiday season tradition. They have evolved through families, the changing social atmosphere, and American corporate culture into several variations. But the basic rules have stayed generally the same.
The Rules of the Game Today
While there are many various, the most standard version is relatively simple.
1. Write each person’s name on separate sheets of paper. This ensures that everyone is included. It also randomizes who gives to whom.
2. Ask each person to write down 1-2 gift suggestions. This is the fun part. People can write down serious or useful gifts, gag gifts, or something totally random. They can also write down something they want, especially if you are playing the White Elephant variation. This step is also a good time to establish a price range for the gifts.
3. Put the names in a bowl, hat, or similar object so that they can’t be seen. Then, have each participant draw a name. This is where things get more interesting, because participants may not know exactly what their recipients want. You can also have each person randomly choose one of the gift ideas the participants wrote down in step 2.
4. The host should create a secret master list of who is giving to whom. This ensures that, if a name is lost or forgotten, the recipient still gets a gift. It also prevents mistakes or any form of cheating.
5. Plan a time for the gift exchange, or arrange a day when the presents will be delivered. If this is an office event or a family get-together, you can make this a Christmas party. You could also go with something like Julklapp, where the giver sneaks the package to the recipient’s home or mails it anonymously.
6. If you go with the party option, people can try to guess who their Santas were. This part of the exchange is especially helpful in building camaraderie among fellow employees or strengthening the bonds of friends or family. It is up to you whether to reveal the givers or not. In this way the game could end at the exchange party or go on for years.
Variations of the Rules
In both the business world and friend and family settings, many alternate versions have evolved. While many of the rules above still apply, these particular Christmas traditions can add fun, humor, and even some learning to the proceedings.
This version involves a lot less work for the giver. Each participant buys a gift, which can be useful, humorous, or totally random. Alternatively, the host can dictate what type of gifts should be bought. At the holiday party, an order is determined, either by picking a number out of a hat or using an online randomizer program.
Players then sit in a formation, such as a line or circle, so that they can see all the gifts as they are opened. Then, the next participant may either keep the present he or she opens or “steal” a gift that was opened previously. If a participant’s present is stolen, they will have the opportunity to steal another gift, as long as it isn’t his or her original gift.
After the third or fourth person, you may notice that gifts are being stolen multiple times. This is where the “three swap rule” comes in handy. If a single present is stolen three times, that gift cannot be stolen again until the first opener gets a turn near the end of the game. The game can end when the first opener’s turn to steal comes. During this turn, the first player can exchange his or her gift for any other. In another variation, when any person refuses to steal, the game ends.
This rather complicated but exciting game has many names in different countries and regions. These include Yankee Swap, Thieves’ Christmas, Greedy Punter, Cutthroat Christmas, and Dirty Santa. Due to the friendly competition, this game is usually played among close friends or family members.
One of the newest versions is called Conspiracy Santa, in which a group engages in a plot to give an anonymous Christmas gift to a single person. Each person is the target of a new conspiracy, so everyone gets a gift. The “conspiracy” part of this variation can involve discovering what the person wants based on conversations and personality traits. A lot of this “reconnaissance” is done through email and text.
Because you must leave out at least one person (including the organizer) from the first email exchange, Conspiracy Santa becomes an especially useful problem solving and team-building exercise.
The Online Version
This online variation is especially adaptable to the age of Covid-19. People are usually invited to participate through email or text. Each person creates a wish list. Then, the host plugs a list of participant’s names into an online randomizer tool such as this one.
Gifts can be bought online through sites like Amazon, Etsy, or another online retailer. A price range can be set beforehand. The giver then has the choice of buying, wrapping, and mailing the gift or having it sent directly to the recipient.
These handy online applications allow you to enter names, draw names, and even send automated emails and texts to designate recipients and suggest gifts. There is a lot of versatility to these programs. If a new participant wants to join in, you can enter names after the original list has been generated.
You can also set exclusions in case you don’t want a particular person to be a gift-giver to a certain recipient. You can also establish a price range and set a date and time for the exchange. These programs are usually compatible with scheduling programs like Google Calendar.
In 2009, several people who met on the internet began a worldwide gift-giving movement. By 2019, this program, which is called redditgifts, had nearly 200,000 participants. It is the current Guinness World Record holder for the largest gift exchange. In a few minutes, you can register and set up a profile that tells a little about you and describes your gift preferences. The price range is typically between $10 and $25 USD.
Redditgifts has a designated Matching Day, in which you are randomly assigned another participant who will be your recipient. You can explore that person’s profile to determine what gift is most appropriate. Then, you simply mail the gift to the recipient. Thank you notes are encouraged.
While redditgifts can be completely free, there are also paid membership offers through which you are made an “Elf.” This membership can be for three months, six months, or one year. Elves are only matched with other Elves. Elves can also attain awards for gift-giving, and they can vote on the details of future gift exchanges. They also have access to a private subreddit.
The redditgifts movement has exploded in recent years. It has moved beyond a simple Christmas gift exchange. Exchanges are now held throughout the year. The first of these was Arbitrary Day, which is now held at the halfway point between Christmases. Later, a Halloween exchange followed, then themed exchanges. These include events for Star Wars and Star Trek merchandise, comic books, board games, antiques, kitchenware, and even yarn.
Redditgifts became such a large undertaking that the creators could no longer maintain it while working full time jobs. In 2011, Reddit purchased the enterprise.
Famous gift-givers include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who will often donate to a charity in the name of the recipient.
What Should You Buy?
While your gift choice may be informed by the recipient’s needs or personality, you also have many online options that will help you with gift selection. Amazon.com has a section dedicated to inexpensive, useful, or funny gifts. You can also look to articles like this one or this one to guide you in the most trendy purchases.
No matter your style of game or choice of gift, remember, this event (and the season that surrounds it) is about happiness, good cheer, friendship and family. This is your best guide in choosing your gift and establishing the rules for your own game.