The holidays can be pretty hectic. They’re full of people shopping for gifts, baking dozens of cookies, decorating trees, and wrapping hundreds of presents. Another part of Christmas history is setting up a Secret Santa, whether it’s between friends or at work.

Secret Santa is a simple way to make the workplace a little merrier. Even if you work remote, everyone can mail out the gifts and you can have an unwrapping over Zoom. If you do want to meet in person, a holiday party at the end of the year gives your employees something to be excited about.

So, how do you totally crush Secret Santa at the office? Set a designated day for your exchange, and follow these tried-and-true rules and tips!

1. Follow the Rules

Christmas gift for Secret Santa at the office

For those who don’t know, Secret Santa is a gift exchange done in the spirit of old St. Nick. The idea of the game is to play Santa himself, but shhh, you can’t tell anyone who you have!

Secret Santa can be a lot of fun and is an excellent way to get the whole staff together for the holiday season. However, when it’s not executed properly, the experience can be a total downer for everyone involved.

These directions and rules will put you on track for a smooth, gift-giving event!

The Do’s of Secret Santa

  • Set a spending limit – This will eliminate confusion and make sure the gifts are similar across the board.

  • Be unique and creative – Money and gift cards are great, but homemade, thoughtful, or creative gifts are even better!

  • Participate – Enjoying the party is so much more fun than being Mr. Scrooge.

  • Know your audience – While you might think a joke or prank is a funny gift, your co-worker may think otherwise.

The Don’ts of Secret Santa

  • Tell anyone who you have – It’s called Secret Santa for a reason!

  • Go over budget – How upset would you be if Suzy spent $25 on your gift when you spent $50 on Jack’s gift?

  • Be passive-aggressive with your gift – Secret Santa isn’t the time to tell Steve he needs a spritz of cologne.

  • Show poor character – Even if you don’t like the gift, you should pretend likes it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Setting ground rules upfront will ensure everyone receives a gift within the price limit and nobody’s feelings get hurt. After all, Secret Santa is about bringing joy to the office, not leaving people feeling blue.

2. Pick a Strategy

Types of Secret Santa

Now that you’ve established the rules, it’s time to pick your strategy! The best and easiest way to guarantee you’ll have a great turnout is by providing a sign-up sheet for your staff either in the breakroom or by sending a mass email.

You can go one of two directions: traditional or white elephant. Not sure which path will suit your company best? Follow these easy steps to get the gist of each exchange.

Traditional Secret Santa

  1. Hand out small pieces of paper or a notecard to every participant.
  2. Have each individual write their name and 3-5 gifts within the set price limit.
  3. When everyone is done, they’ll fold their paper and place inside a hat.
  4. Everyone takes turns drawing a name from the hat until there are no names left to pull.
  5. Start shopping (after work of course)!

White Elephant Secret Santa

  1. Everyone brings a generic gift, wrapped and ready to go on the day of the gift exchange.
  2. Place gifts in the middle of the room.
  3. Have everyone draw a number from a hat.
  4. Start with whoever has lucky number 1.
  5. Person 1 will go grab a present that isn’t theirs and unwrap it in front of everyone.
  6. Person 2 can now grab an unwrapped present from the middle, or steal person 1’s present.
  7. If person 2 steals, then person 1 will get to grab another present from the middle.
  8. The game will continue repeating step 6. (You can’t steal back the gift taken from you, and there are only 2 steals per round).

The traditional Secret Santa works best for smaller, more intimate work settings. It’s a lot easier to buy gifts for co-workers when you know them personally versus the occasional chatter with acquaintances at a big office.

If you have more than 50 employees, a white elephant gift exchange might be the way to go. It’s the only game where coming in last can really pay off!

3. Holiday Gifts to Avoid

gifts to avoid for Secret Santa

Buying presents for people, even when you know them personally, can be difficult and frustrating. The endless supply of options and the desire to make sure you get the best gift are what make the task of giving so tricky.

Narrow down your options with this list of secret Santa gifts you should never buy someone, ever.

  • Gift cards or money – While gift cards are great for birthday or appreciation gifts, they scream “lazy” for Christmas. Nothing says, “I don’t know anything about you” like money.

  • Used or opened items – When it comes to gifting presents, it’s the thought that counts; however, regifting items shows you put zero thought into the gift at all. Going this route will make you look cheap and tacky.

  • Controversial gifts – Items like underwear, diet pills, toiletries, or gag gifts are not appropriate and should never be given to your co-worker, especially at a work event. Presents that poke fun at political issues, religious beliefs, or gender identity is a no-go as well.

  • Food – Cookies, candy, and brownies are sweet and delicious, but they’re not proper gifts. Although intentions might be good with this one, most people might not want treats in place of an actual present. Also, you never know who has allergies.

  • Office supplies – Sure, Scott might be running low on staples and tape, but I can guarantee he doesn’t want them as a Christmas present. Go shopping at a store and buy a real present.

  • Clothes – I know some people might appreciate clothes as a present, but if you’re anything like me, it’s the absolute worst. We’re all adults here and unless someone asked for a specific item, we don’t need other people picking out our clothes for us.

Receiving a lousy present is a surefire way to dampen anyone’s mood. Take it from kids who have received the worst “gifts” from their parents just days before Christmas!

This video was featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

4. Donate to a Charity

donate to a charity for Secret Santa

Giving to others is a great way to spread holiday joy throughout your community or around the world. Many charities and nonprofits rely heavily on donations, especially around Christmas, so as an alternative to the traditional Secret Santa, have people write their favorite organization on scraps of paper, have all the participants pick from a hat, and then they can donate money or needed items to whatever organization they picked.

You can also elect to purchase gifts as a company and donate them to families who can’t afford presents. In place of a gift exchange day, throw a wrapping party instead.

We have the power to make a difference. By giving to local or national nonprofits and charities, you’re assisting those who need help the most. Whether it’s supporting animals, cancer patients, finding cures for diseases, or wildlife conservation, we can make the world a better place one donation at a time.

5. Raffle Off Swag

company swag for the holidays

Your employees have pride in where they work, and they also probably love free giveaway items. At the end of the year, you can raffle off any leftover promotional products you have from the year’s trade shows or advertising events to your team.

Raffle off any item printed with your logo that you think your employees will enjoy – t-shirts, coffee mugs, koozies, hats, etc. You can host the raffle during a holiday party and provide plenty of food and drinks. Everyone will have fun, and as a bonus, you’ll get more marketing from your swag!

6. Keep It Merry & Bright

fun office Christmas party

The whole point of incorporating Secret Santa in the office is to have fun! No matter how many times you tell people the rules, there will always be one person who didn’t get the memo. It’s never going to be perfect, but you can still have a great time and enjoy doing something with all of your co-workers.

The holidays revolve around the tradition of giving. So, relax, talk about things other than work, enjoy tasty treats, laugh until your abs get a workout, and live in the spirit of the holidays. To add to the fun, switch it up every year! Go traditional one year and white elephant the next, or have employees vote on various gift exchange ideas. The options are endless!

Final Thoughts

The important thing to remember is that Secret Santa isn’t just about the presents. It’s about destressing at the office, spending quality time with your co-workers, and rounding out the year on a positive note. After all, everyone has worked hard and deserves a teeny, tiny break, including the boss!

Do you have any gift exchange traditions at your work? We’d love to hear them!

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