Tuesday Tips: Setting Up a Secret Santa Gift Exchange

I've been in one Secret Santa gift exchange in my life. It was an office-based event and I'll never forget the excitement of returning from lunch and seeing a neatly wrapped box sitting on my chair. It was more about the fun of receiving an anonymous gift than the actual gift, which I still use, by the way (kitchen towels with snowflakes on them). Secret Santa gift exchanges, in which a group of people pick a name from a hat and secretly buy that person a gift, usually with a set dollar amount, are now being touted as economical, "green" and more productive because people are spending less time shopping. So here are some tips on organizing a Secret Santa event for your family or friends:

Tip #1: Use online sources to help organize the Secret Santa exchange, especially if you have a family that won't be together to pick names and talk about rules. Sites like Elfster.com and SecretSanta.com will help organize the transaction and allow users to create wish lists. Elfster will even let users send anonymous messages to their recipients like "What's your shirt size?"

Tip #2: Encourage members of the gift exchange to set up wish lists. That way people get what they want or don't want. This is where being "green" comes into play: Those unwanted gifts won't end up in a landfill. "There's an old saying that it's the thought that counts. But really it's the thought and the gift that count," says Peter Imburg, founder of Elfster.

Tip #3: Set a realistic dollar limit for each gift and really enforce the rule of sticking to that amount. Families typically choose $75, according to Imburg, but make sure all family members are comfortable with that amount before the shopping begins.

Tip #4: Consider doing a theme-based Secret Santa exchange such as all handmade gifts or gifts of charitable donations. Another idea is to give the gift of time such as babysitting services or cooking dinner for the entire family.

Tip #5: If you have children in the gift exchange, Imburg recommends setting up their own Secret Santa. That way the children only draw each other's names and the adults in the family only draw their own names.

Tip #6: If there are small children in the family, get them a gift card with the amount that they're allowed to spend and take them to a store to buy their Secret Santa gift with the gift card. It teaches them about spending limits and eases any awkwardness in families that may have a couple with the only children in the family and not having to buy that branch of the family the most gifts.

Tip #7: Start getting your family prepared for a Secret Santa gift exchange the day after Christmas, Imburg says. That way people who buy gifts all year round are prepared. Plus, family members may be more willing to do a Secret Santa holiday within days of finishing the frenzy of the holiday season and all the shopping that goes along with it.

Tip #8: If you have a reluctant member of the family, don't force them to be in the Secret Santa exchange, Imburg says. Organize it for the rest of the family and the reluctant one will likely warm up to the idea after seeing it in action the first year.

Tip #9: Don't EVER deny Grandma from spoiling her grandkids on Christmas. Assure her that she can give them all gifts outside of the Secret Santa event.

Have you ever done a Secret Santa gift exchange in your family? Are you planning on this year? What are your tips for making it a fun experience? What other ways are you cutting back on your holiday shopping?

By Tania Anderson |  December 9, 2008; 12:00 AM ET Holidays and Special Occasions , Tuesday Tips
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