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Host a Successful Secret Santa Gift Exchange

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Although I grew up as an only child, my Dad came from a big family.  This meant a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins to spend the holidays with.  And that could have ended up with a lot of gift giving.

Instead, every Christmas our family put the cousins’ names into a hat and we all picked one for a Secret Santa Gift Exchange.  I’ll be honest.  I am not sure how legitimate it really was since every year I ended up with a different name.  But the idea was there.

My job was to pick out a gift for that cousin.  Then at our family Christmas celebration, we exchanged gifts with each other.  We packaged our Secret Santa gifts with special Secret Santa gift tags.  On the back of each gift tag, we would write a clue about ourselves to help the recipient guess.  Usually something nobody else in the family knew about us.

Before opening the gift, the recipient would try to guess who the Secret Santa was.  It was a highlight of our holiday gatherings growing up.


Another Secret Santa Exchange that I participated in was at school.  You picked the name of someone in your class.  Then throughout the week, you gave little gifts (under $1) to that person along with a clue.  At the end of the week, you tried to guess who your Secret Santa was and received a final gift.  It was so much fun getting to know classmates this way and who doesn’t like a little surprise every day for a week right before the holidays.

A Secret Santa Exchange is a really fun holiday game.  You can set up the gift exchange for a family holiday celebration, classroom activity or for your at work party.  Or take the idea of Secret Santa and adapt it for a different holiday like Valentine’s Day.

And the best part is that it’s simple to host.  Just use these tips below and you can have your own Secret Santa fun at your next Christmas celebration.


Make It Truly Random

As I mentioned above, I am not too positive that the Secret Santa exchanges that I participated in as a child were really that random.  It seems that after all of those holidays, a name would have repeated itself at least once.

When setting up your Secret Santa gift exchange, make it truly random.  Once you have all of the names of the participants, take the time to put them in a hat and pull each name out.  If you can organize the group to get together and draw names in person, that is the best way to keep it secret.  (I can imagine choosing names at Thanksgiving dinner for a Secret Santa event at Christmas.)

Or you could use a Virtual Hat.  You enter the names into this computer algorithm and the program assigns a gift recipient to everyone.  The only issue that I see with this tool is you will know who has you.  If you don’t mind not sharing in the fun of a Secret Santa this is a great way to pair everyone fairly.

Choose a Format that Works for You

I have organized Secret Santa gift exchanges in two different ways.  Both were really fun, but they don’t fit all groups of participants.

If you are putting together a gift exchange for a group that sees each other daily, you might consider having participants give small gifts every day and end with a larger gift.  With each daily gift, they write a clue about themselves.  Then at the final gift exchange, the recipient tries to guess who their Secret Santa is based on these clues.

The other format that you could use is best for groups that only see each other at the Secret Santa party.  Each participant purchases one larger gift to exchange.  On the back of the Secret Santa tag, they write clues about who they are.  The recipient tries to guess their Secret Santa.

Another option is not to use clues at all.  The recipient opens the gift and guesses based on the gift received.

All of these formats are a lot of fun, but it’s important to choose one before getting started.  Participants need to know how involved they need to be in the game and how many gifts they need to purchase.

Get to Know Your Secret Santa

One thing that I learned from having a large extended family is that I don’t always know everyone as well as I would like to.  Secret Santa is the perfect way to change this.

Once you have assigned names, encourage each person to get to know their Secret Santa.  You can pass out these free printable Secret Santa information cards.  (Download and print your free printable cards here.)

Participants can answer questions about their favorite restaurant, candy and hobbies.  This information will help the Secret Santas select the perfect gift that the recipient will love.

Set a Budget Early

One of the reasons that many don’t like Secret Santa gift exchanges is that sometimes participants will try and outdo each other with gift giving.  We’re competitive by nature.  What can I say.

Before you begin, set a strict budget for the cost of the gift.  For a larger gift, you might decide on $25.00 max or less.  If you decide to give a set of smaller gifts prior to the larger gift, each one might cost $1.00.

One thing to be clear on with the budget is that the gift should value about this amount.  It doesn’t necessarily have to cost this much (especially if you snagged a great sale), but the item should value around that.

This concept can get tricky if you are a connoisseur of discount stores.  I can purchase a lot more “gift” from a place like Homegoods than a regular retail shop.  The problem is that I might spend $20, but the item is valued at $40.   And I end up with a lot bigger of a gift than a “realistically” priced $20 one.  To keep everything fair, emphasize that value is important.

Select a Gift that the Recipient will Love

Unlike a White Elephant gift exchange where participants try to get rid of a gift that they didn’t want, in a Secret Santa gift exchange you are choosing a creative and unique gift the person will love.

Once you know a little bit about the recipient, select a gift that they will enjoy.  You can find lots of fun Secret Santa gift ideas here that will fit all sorts of likes and interests.

For Secret Santa gifts for kids, choose something that fits the child’s interests.  Books, puzzles, art supplies and craft kits as well as games and science kits can all be wonderful gift ideas.  You can find some great educational gift ideas here.

Or get the child the first box of a subscription box service.  You can usually buy subscription boxes individually and they are filled with an assortment of things for the child to make and do.  Choose a box in a theme that interests the child and you are sure to have a winning Secret Santa gift.  Some of our favorites are Green Kids Crafts (affiliate) for those who love science and art, Baketivity (affiliate) for aspiring bakers and Orange Art Box (affiliate) for kids who crave a burst of creativity.

If you are really not sure what to get your Secret Santa recipient, go with a gift card.  You can rarely go wrong with a gift card gift (unless you choose a place that the person NEVER visits).  I always try to choose a gift card to a local shop if possible.  This let’s me support a small business while also introducing the recipient to a new place in town.

When choosing a gift card, make sure it is thoughtful and personalized to the recipient.  This is not the moment to grab a generic Visa gift card.  Select one to a place that the recipient loves to frequent or is related to their responses on their information card.

Also focus on supporting small businesses in your area when deciding on a gift card.  If the person loves Mexican food, you could try the new burrito place on the corner instead of a traditional chain Mexican restaurant.  It’s a win-win for everyone.

Don’t Blab

One of the key words in a Secret Santa gift exchange is secret.  The important step for this game to be successful is keeping the gift recipients a secret.  I remember when we participated in the one at school and others would start suspecting who had you.  It became a really frustrating exercise after awhile, since I really didn’t want to know.

Instead, encourage participants to keep their Secret Santa a surprise.  No hint dropping or telling.  The final reveal will be lots more fun if this rule is followed.


Wrap It Up 

Once you have selected your gift(s), it’s time to wrap it up.  Choose pretty paper or a holiday gift bag.  Then, attach our free printable Secret Santa gift tag.  It will make packaging your Secret Santa gift quick and easy.

If you want to include a clue to help the recipient guess who you are, write it on the back of the tag.  This can help them with the guessing process.

Go Digital

In today’s crazy world, hosting a Secret Santa gift exchange in person might not be something you can do.  But this doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.  You just have to get creative.

One suggestion is to go virtual.  Once you have your participants, you can email them the information about who they are Secret Santa for.  Then, have participants secretly drop gifts at each other’s houses or mail them (you might have to get creative with the return address).  Host the Secret Santa gift exchange as a Zoom or Facebook event.  Participants can then open the gifts on Zoom and guess their Secret Santas.

For more tips to hosting a virtual event, check out these ideas here.

If a Secret Santa gift exchange wasn’t quite what you had in mind for your family’s holiday celebration this season, you could try some other gift exchange games.  Instead, you could host a White Elephant gift exchange.  I used to organize one of these with my mom’s group as an after Christmas get together.  Each person brought a gift that they didn’t want or weren’t interested in.  Then, another person selected the gift from a table.  I usually ended up with a scented candle.  But there were some really funny things exchanged too and it was a lot of fun.

Planning a Secret Santa is a great holiday gift exchange game that your whole family will love.  It’s also a great way to save some money around the holidays.  In bigger families, like ours, it was more budget friendly to buy a larger present for one cousin than multiple small presents for twenty.  And everyone got something they truly enjoyed.

Looking for tags to attach to your Secret Santa gifts?  Check out these free printable Secret Santa tags.  They are perfect to attach to your Secret Santa gifts.

And if you are planning a Secret Santa gift exchange for this upcoming holiday season, be sure to pin these tips for later.


Christmas will be here before you know it.  Need some holiday activity ideas?  Check out this Free Printable Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt.  Another one of our family’s annual traditions.  Or play Roll a Christmas Tree at the kids holiday party or North Pole Breakfast.  Be sure to check out the blog for lots of ways to get in the holiday spirit.

Happy Celebrating,

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