A Secret Santa gift exchange is ideal for groups, schools, neighborhoods, and organizations that wish to swap gifts for Christmas but not break the budget. If you've never taken part in one, you're in for a treat. It's not an original idea but it certainly adds a little fun and mystery to the season.
Planning one isn't difficult if you know the basics. There are a few variations you can use to customize the exchange to suit the participants. The keys to success are a good poker face and an entire group that can keep a secret.
Also known as a Pollyanna or Kris Kringle exchange, the Secret Santa gift exchange involves putting names in a hat (or jar, or container) and having each person draw one name. Everyone will be a Secret Santa to someone as well as a recipient. This works well in large families when it's not practical to buy individual gifts for everyone.
This scheme can be very simple or quite involved. For example, you can use it for one Christmas gift a year or you can spread it out over several days or weeks and give (and receive) several gifts on chosen days. All gifts should contain a gift card or tag that states the name of the recipient only and left at a designated spot.
Any anonymous gift exchange should be completely voluntary and you need to respect those who do not wish to participate. Rules should be stated clearly for everyone who opted in to avoid any confusion. They can be stated on a party invitation, in a letter, or delivered in the form of a Secret Santa poem. Types of gifts, price limits, and whether or not clues are allowed should also be included. You may also allow everyone to create a wish list to give others gift ideas.
Gifts should be appropriate and this needs to be clear, especially if your group is not close family members. Planning a Secret Santa exchange for the office could be risky because someone could choose a present that may insult the recipient. Intended or not, don't let them have the opportunity if you think there's any chance of this happening. Instead, have a trusted person keep a list of the names drawn to keep everyone honest. Or, forgo the office gift exchange altogether and just pass the hat to buy a nice gift for the boss.
"Mum" is the word, really. When children are involved, it may not be easy for them to keep a secret. If you're doing this at school, you will need to convince them not to tell anyone whose name they drew. This is probably a situation that would not benefit from clues before the party because they may offer ones that are too obvious, which will spoil the fun.
Everyone's secrecy skills are all for naught if they're observed bringing in their gift(s). For this reason, you will need to designate an area to drop off gifts. The area will be for this purpose only and should be off-limits for socializing. Tell participants to conceal presents in a bag to keep them from being associated with it. If the Secret Santa exchange will be a series of gifts delivered to the recipient, it will be crucial to conduct covert operations and not be observed by anyone.
After creating suspense, it is nice to have a "reveal" at the holiday party. Before the reveal, you can allow clues to be given when multiple gifts are given over a period of time or one small clue for an individual gift. In the end, it's nice to discover who your Secret Santa is. Consider making a game of it and allowing questions that will offer additional hints or have the game be the only source of clues. Groups that meet periodically may enjoy an occasional "clue day" that will add to the mystery.
If you're into charity, consider choosing a disadvantaged family with kids and showering them with practical gifts that will help them get through the winter. Make this a group effort. Scatter the gifts throughout the month of December, leaving no clues. For some families, it may be difficult to accept but rest assured, they'll be grateful in times of need. If you plan on doing this, I recommend keeping Secret Santa a secret. This will prevent gossip and help the family avoid any "pride" issues or embarrassment.