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Secret Santa 101: Brush up on gift exchange game rules

Secret Santa

The office tree has been trimmed, the halls have been decked and everyone is scrambling to get all of their end-of-year work done. But before you can leave the office for the holidays and officially begin the festivities, there’s one thing left to do: the office gift exchange.

More budget-friendly than your typical office party, a gift swap get-together might be the way to go. Consider these three gift giving games for your small firm’s holiday celebration. They will make everyone feel jolly and turn a potentially ho-hum gathering into a ho-ho-holiday team bonding experience.

Game: White Elephant  

How to Play: Have you ever looked at a gift someone just received with envy because you wished it had been given to you instead? With White Elephant—also known as Pirate Santa, Yankee Swap and Dirty Santa—you’re in luck. That coveted gift can be all yours.

To play White Elephant, everyone brings in a wrapped gift and places it on a table in the front of the room. The group sits in a circle and each person is assigned a number. The first person picks a present from the pile, opens it and displays it for the rest of the group to see. The next player can choose to unwrap a new present or steal the gift from the first person. If the first player has their gift stolen, they choose another one. This keeps going until there are no wrapped presents left. At this point, the person who went first has an opportunity to steal a present from someone else.


  • A gift can only be stolen once per turn.
  • A gift can only be stolen three times total.
  • If someone steals three gifts, they are out of the game.
  • A gift cannot be immediately stolen back from the person who took it.
  • To ensure the gifts have a comparable level of desirability, set guidelines for the amount that should be spent and the theme of the gift. Swapping gift cards (of a set amount) is an option you may wish to consider.

Game: Secret Santa 

How to Play: If you want your office holiday gift giving to be more nice than naughty, Secret Santa is the way to go. In this classic gift exchange, each participant picks a name out of a hat to determine who they will buy a present for. No one knows who is buying a gift for them until they open it during the planned exchange.   


  • Have participants create a wish list so people who may not know each other well can get a present their colleague will enjoy.
  • Set a price range to ensure that presents cost about the same amount.
  • To add some more fun to the gift exchange, have each person try to guess who gave them the present. If the recipient is unable to figure out who gave the gift, the gift giver reveals themselves.

Game: Left/Right 

How to Play: If you are looking for a gift exchange game that’s less hectic than White Elephant and more interactive than Secret Santa, then Left/Right is the game for you. To start off, everyone sits in a circle with their wrapped present in their lap. A designated leader who isn’t playing reads a story that is peppered with the words LEFT and RIGHT to designate which direction players should pass their gifts.

Sample story:

It was a chilly evening in December at the local Performing Arts Center. It looked as though everyone had LEFT their homes and were out and about. Crowds gathered around to see the festive light show which LEFT many oohing and ahhing. The shops were bustling with people running to get last minute presents for the people LEFT on their lists. Many customers at the toy store were looking for a popular train set. They were pleased when the store manager announced that there were plenty in stock. The customers LEFT happy and feeling relieved.  The ice skating rink was filled to the brim with folks in a cheerful mood. Many parents LEFT their children on the ice while they watched from the RIGHT side of the rink. Once the kids LEFT the ice, they ran RIGHT to the hot cocoa stand. They LEFT the rink with a sugar high. Everyone was enjoying the holiday spirit in the city. 


  • If you can’t think of a story or don’t have time to create one, feel free to use the one above.
  • Make sure the story is written with the number of participants in mind so the gifts don’t wind up with the players who brought them.
  • To mix up the game even further, add ACROSS to the story to indicate that players should pass the gift to the person directly across from them in the circle.

No matter which holiday gift exchange game you choose, remember that the rules are not set in stone. You know your coworkers best, so feel free to alter any of these games to make them more fun for your team. In my experience, these games produce camaraderie if you ensure everyone is comfortable with the established price range and you engage your quieter teammates by encouraging them to get involved with steals. Adding in food to the fun is always a good idea. It doesn’t need to involve a full meal, but providing some snacks or dessert always helps add to the get-together. Send everyone home with a bag of sweet treats to finish the event on a (sugar) high.

Small firms, we are here for you. In addition to holiday fun tips we’ve got resources to help make your firm more productive and profitable. Check out these tools today to help your small firm make a big impact.

Lisa Simpson, CPA, CGMA, Associate Director – Firm Services, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Secret Santa courtesy of Shutterstock.


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