How to Play Dirty Santa

Are you bored with traditional white elephant gift exchanges? Here is a new take an old favorite. Today I’m sharing a new way to spice up holidays gift exchanges with how to play Dirty Santa.

how to play dirty Santa
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All of us are familiar with white elephant gift exchanges. If you have ever been part of an office gift exchange chances are you have done white elephant. As much as we all love gift-giving, most of us haven’t won the lottery recently. A white elephant type of exchange is a great way to involve lots of people in gift exchanging with everyone making a modest contribution and therefore not breaking the bank.

In fact, that’s part of why I decided to share this in a blog post this year. COVID-19 has hit lots of people financially this year. In years past, some of my extended family drew names for a gift exchange instead of buying everyone a gift. But I found that it ended up being lack-luster. For example, lots of people just bought $25 gift cards and that’s exactly what it felt like. A group of people passing the same $25 around. Boring!!

Why not turn it into a fun game instead. Today, I’m going to share with you a fun way to turn humdrum white elephant gift exchanges into something more fun. Dirty Santa, White Elephant and Yankee Swap are all very similar in nature. First, I’m going to give you the basic rules. Then I am going to give you some fun variations to mix it up.

How to Play Dirty Santa

Rule 1: Decide on a Dollar Amount

This is totally up to the people involved, but you will need to decide on a dollar amount. It’s hard to find decent presents under $10 or $15, but if you are giving to office co-workers, that might be the perfect amount. If you are giving to close family members, you might consider a higher dollar amount like $50 or even $100. Just make sure there is no pressure and everyone is in agreement. You also want to discuss whether or not gag gifts will be allowed. This should be absolutely clear to everyone. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of people who were upset when they bought a thoughtful gift and got a ridiculous gag gift like a bar of soap! So just make sure everyone agrees on whether to include comical gifts or not.

Rule 2: Make Wrapping a Big Deal

To add a little extra flavor to the experience, go all out on wrapping. Go festive with big bows or festive elements. If you have a very small item, perhaps you wrap it in a large box or an unusual container. I’ve heard of some people that get silly and wrap the gift multiple times so the recipient has to unwrap it again and again. There are lots of ways to make the wrapping entertaining to onlookers.

Rule 3: Place Gifts

You will need to place gifts in full view of all the guests so they can select from the pile. Any surface will do so long as it’s clean and everyone can access it when it is their turn to pick a gift.

Rule 3: Draw Numbers

Count the number of participants and write the numbers on little slips of paper. For example, for fifteen participants you’d write numbers one through fifteen. Fold the papers to obscure the number, then place the papers in a container. Then every person will draw a number from the container.

Rule 4: Gift Picking and Stealing

Starting with whoever drew number one, that person will pick any gift from the pile. They will open it in front of everyone. Then the gift picking will move to the number two person. That person can either pick a new gift to unwrap from the table or they can steal the unwrapped gift. If they select a new gift to unwrap, they cannot steal. The playing moves down the line chronologically and every player can steal any one of the previously unwrapped gifts or pick a new gift from the pile.

Some people like to make a rule that a particular gift cannot be stolen more than two or three times. This rule is totally optional, but it totally stops coveted gifts from making too many rounds. If a player’s gift is stolen, they then get to pick another gift to unwrap or they too can steal one of the opened gifts. They just can’t steal their own back. This continues until all players have gifts. At the end of the gift picking, the person who was number one can choose to steal any of the gifts!

Variations of Dirty Santa

Scavenger Hunt

This particularly fun in an office setting. Everyone must start at the entrance of the building or home you are in. Instead of drawing names, hide all the presents, and have people search for them. Participants can swap once with each other once all the gifts are found, but that’s it.

Musical Chairs

Have all guests sit or stand in a circle. Have some holiday tunes ready. A gift is entered into the circle as music plays and continues being passed around until the music stops. Whoever is holding the gift when the music stops, gets the gift and leaves the circle. This process continues until everyone has received a gift. The last person in the circle can either steal any of the opened gifts or take the remaining unopened gift.

A Themed Gift

You can play this using the same rules as classic Dirty Santa or White Elephant, but the gifts purchased have a theme. Maybe its a DVD, a holiday ornament, homemade gifts, or regifts. Use your imagination!

Karaoke Edition

Have everyone include a tag on their gift that has a Christmas Carol title on it. You can do this with or without a karaoke machine. Guests get in line and take turns selecting gifts from the gift table. However, they must sing the carol written on the gift they select before they can open it.

Christmas Break Out Games

Make sure everyone is okay with this before purchasing gifts. But you can turn the gifts into prizes and instead allow guests to win them in simple Christmas games or minute-to-win-it games. In fact, I’ve created some printable Christmas party games that you can purchase below. You can also set aside a few gifts for consolation prizes and set a rule that guests can play the games all they want, but can only win one gift.

Gift Ideas

For a full list of gift ideas, you can check out my blog post

However, here is a small list of ideas. If you are playing with both men and women, you’ll want to aim for unisex gifts. These are gifts that can be used or appeal to both. Here are some quick ideas all under $25.

So now you know how to play Dirty Santa also known as White elephant and hopefully I’ve given you some additional ideas on how to switch things up. Full confession – I normally dislike gag gifts. If you’ve received and loved a gag gift, let me know in the comments. Happy Holidays!

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