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Secret Santa Gift Exchange Rules

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When the holiday season approaches, something magical seems to enter the air. Especially when it comes to gift giving, people of all ages start to get excited about exchanging presents. 

Secret Santa gift exchanges are no exception.

Do you know where Secret Santa originates?

The tradition’s start is just as inspiring as the magic surrounding it in today’s society.

In December of 1979, a man named Larry Stewart was in a restaurant mourning the loss of his job. When he noticed a waitress wearing a worn-out jacket, he decided to change his perspective and give to others instead of feeling sorry for himself. He realized that many people were struggling much more than he was.

Each December, he would hand out $100 bills to people in need in his area. He became an American folk figure known as “Kansas City’s Secret Santa.” 

Over his lifetime, it’s estimated that he donated over $1.3 million, including donations in New York City after the events of 9/11 and in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

In fact, no one even knew his real name until 2006.

Now, he is known as the man whose philanthropy started the Secret Santa tradition. He even spent later years of his life “training” other Secret Santas to pick up his work making anonymous donations to the needy.

So this season, when you’re planning your next Secret Santa gift exchange, remember its inspirational origins. For an amazing Secret Santa gift exchange this year, here are some rules and tips you can follow to make the most of the holiday magic.

Using a Secret Santa Generator

Our top tip for organizing a Secret Santa gift exchange is to use an online Secret Santa generator, like Giftster. It makes it easy to keep track of participants and draw names while keeping everything completely anonymous.

Each participant can also build their wish list right in Giftster, keeping all of the Secret Santa details in one easy place. Here are some of the other benefits of using Giftster as your Secret Santa organizer:

  • Invite participants to your group to share wish lists with each other
  • Add a Secret Santa draw to your group
  • Include any rules, including a budget
  • Easily add gift ideas to your own wish list by manually inputting the details or by using Fetch to capture the item’s information from a website link
  • Mark items on your group member’s lists as purchased without the list maker knowing who you are or what you’ve marked purchased
  • See which items are still available on other’s lists, so your group can avoid duplicate gifts and returns
  • Use any mobile device to access your list and preferences

Choosing participants for the Secret Santa gift exchange

You can host a Secret Santa gift exchange with almost anyone: friends, neighbors, children, relatives, or coworkers. In fact, you might have several different gift exchanges each year.

Decide who will be participating in the gift exchange

Has your family grown since last Christmas? Or are your in-laws going to be opting out of this year’s exchange? 

Make sure you have everyone who will be taking part in your exchange in your family’s Giftster group. Send them an invite to your group or ask them to do a member search to join your group. This is also a great time to email your group and ask them to start updating their wish lists and gift preferences.

Schedule when and where your exchange will take place

Let everyone know when the exchange will take place and where so they can start planning their shopping. Add the location to your Secret Santa draw rules (if you’re the group owner).

Set your Secret Santa budget

Choose a budget that is affordable for everyone so as many people can participate as possible. To really keep the cost down, consider a white elephant gift exchange where participants wrap up a funny or repurposed gift.

Or do a combination of both to mix it up for your group this year.

Set the tone for your gift exchange

Does your exchange have a theme? Is it meant to be sincere or a bit on the silly side, or a little of both? My family has, on occasion, assigned where all the gift exchange items should be purchased, like the grocery store or Walgreens or a craft shop. 

Also, it’s important to let people know what is and is not acceptable for the exchange. If you have family members with food allergies, maybe you choose not to gift food items in your exchange. Now’s the time to set the tone so everyone is on the same page.

Suggest ideas for items to list

We’ve all suffered from the “Hmmm…I don’t really know what I want for Christmas” response. Check out this extensive list of 100+ prompts to help build a wish list. Also, remind everyone about the budget that has been set for the exchange, and ask them to include gift ideas that fit the set amount.

State any gift-wrapping rules

Some people like to go all out on their wrapping, while others (…ahem…me…) prefer the quick and easy gift bag. Since there is an element of surprise with the exchange, decide if you’ll have any wrapping guidelines so you keep that little piece of mystery in place for as long as possible. 

Also, decide how the giftee’s name should be displayed on the package (I prefer gift labels) and if the “FROM:” part should list the gifter’s name or maybe “Your Secret Santa.” This would be a good time to say how you’ll reveal who each Secret Santa is.

Draw names for your Secret Santa

  1. Simply go to your Groups page at and select Secret Santa at the top of the screen to get started. 
  2. Enter the draw rules and remind people to update their wish lists.

    Here’s a template that you can copy and paste into your draw rules and fill in with your own information. 

    What’s Expected/Theme:
    Wrapping/Labeling Rules:
  1. Choose the members of your group that will be participating. 
  2. Select exclusions so that spouses and siblings don’t select each other or, if you’ve done a draw with Giftster in the past, select a past draw, and the exclusions will transfer over with the added bonus of no one choosing the same person they had last year. 
  3. Press save and activate draw and you’re all finished! Everyone in your group will be notified that the draw has taken place by email. 
  4. All you need to do is log in to Giftster and look for the little Santa hat in the Shop for the section next to the name of the person you drew. Even the coordinator will remain a complete surprise as well.

Time to shop! Check out your draw’s wish list and gift preferences and get shopping. Remember to be mindful of peoples’ preferences and allergies. If you’re shopping for a child, please keep in mind any parental preferences (i.e. no electronics, video games, etc.).

Send a reminder before your Secret Santa event

It never hurts to give people a little nudge to get their shopping done (I speak from experience; remember the giant stuffed walrus?).

It’s gift exchange time! Gather with your family or friends. Place the gifts under the tree. Enjoy each other’s company. Unwrap a little holiday cheer!

Don’t forget to update your Giftster wish list and gift preferences to help our your Secret Santa.

The Dos and Don’ts of a Secret Santa Gift Exchange

Here are a few guidelines to follow to make the event fun and satisfying for everyone…

Do get to know the person you are gifting

When it comes to gift-giving, it’s always best to choose something that the recipient will truly adore. To make this happen, take the time to understand their gift preferences and interests rather than leaving it to chance and potentially missing the mark. Learning more about someone may mean planning activities together, going out for dinner, or just sitting down and talking about stuff you guys love. Another great way to pick a thoughtful gift is to use an online wish list maker to take the guesswork out of the equation completely.

Don’t be cheap

Definitely, you need to stick to the budget and maximize your funds, but by all means, don’t be cheap. If you have committed to gifting someone, buy a new item. Although it is okay to repurpose unused gifts, giving out old items is generally considered a poor form of giving, even if it has barely been used. Secret Santa typically has a price cap of about $10 to $20 per gift, which is quite affordable. Plan your Christmas gift budget around that figure.

More importantly, stick to the gift budget. Don’t be the person who brings a $100 item to a $10 party. 

Do have participants open gifts simultaneously

Let participants open their presents simultaneously to eliminate the problem of people guessing their Secret Santas by process elimination. Once they open their gifts, let them individually write down their Secret Santa guesses on pieces of paper. Go around the room to check who was correct.  

Don’t show disappointment

Just because you fancy yourself as a really good giver doesn’t mean you share the same enthusiasm with everyone. Don’t act disappointed if you receive a gift you consider less appropriate. Doing so is a sure way of killing everyone’s Christmas spirit. No matter the gift you receive, thank the giver and let them know they made your day memorable.

Do offer a prize for guessing their Secret Santa

To make your Secret Santa Exchange rewarding enough, consider offering a prize to those who correctly guess their Secret Santa. Gifts such as Christmas cookies, cocktails, lottery tickets or even cash can incentivize participants who guess first. 

How to play Secret Santa online

You can also set up a Secret Santa game for friends and family spread across the country. Today’s technological advancement allows anyone from anywhere can join the Secret Santa Online event and celebrate their Christmas in style

Here are the rules to get your online gift exchange:

  • Invite other players: Create an Online Secret Santa gift exchange and send email invitations to everyone within your circles who may want to join in.
  • Create a wish list: Encourage participants to create a comprehensive wish list. You can leverage gifts and gifting inspiration from platforms such as Target, Etsy, and Amazon. Alternatively, send out a Secret Santa Questionnaire to find out what they love without accidentally blowing your cover.
  • Exchange gifts: Wrap your gifts and mail them out. Alternatively, select items from their list and have the gifts shipped directly. Consider providing a postage stipend to each participant.
  • Host an online party: All participants must wait to unwrap their packages on the appointed virtual exchange day. Set up live video meetings using Zoom or WebEx to host your online holiday party and play other virtual holiday games. Each participant should try to guess the identity of the gifter once they open the present.

Alternative gift exchanges for hobbies and special interest groups 

The following are a few alternatives to traditional gift-giving that suit the needs of special interest groups:

  • Shared experiences: Contrary to the popular messaging around Christmas, gifts don’t necessarily have to be physical objects that you purchase. They can also be experiences. Instead of purchasing individual presents for your loved ones this year, consider investing that money in a group activity or adventure that you can all do together. These can range from going to local theme parks, sporting events, museums, a gym, or national parks. Buy a season pass for each member and present it as a Santa gift.
  • Gift swap games: Coordinating a group gift swap gift such as White Elephant, Yankee Swap, or Dirty Santa can be a fun way of including everyone without spending lots of cash. Instead of buying a gift for each guest, ask every attendee to bring one wrapped gift to play.
  • Custom coupon books: Custom coupon books are a creative way to appreciate a loved one. Spend time researching what the person you are creating the coupon for really needs. For example, if you are making a book for nursing parents, they would really appreciate a night out on the town without their little loved ones. Gifting a babysitting coupon is definitely a welcome gift. 

What is the difference between Secret Santa and White Elephant?

Secret Santa requires you to actually shop for the person whose name you picked. Because you already know who will receive your gift, you will shop for an item with them in mind. This personalizes the gift-giving experience.

With White Elephant, all participants bring in a gift which is then placed into a pool. Everyone takes a turn picking one at random. This means you won’t know beforehand who will leave with the gift you brought.  

There is no doubt we love Secret Santa gift exchanges. It provides an easy and fun way to ease the pressure off gift-giving during this festive time of year. Take advantage of Giftster’s wish list maker, gift guides, and Secret Santa generator to spread Christmas cheer throughout the seasons.

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