You’ve spent weeks, maybe months, researching the best gift for every friend and family member on your list. You compared prices and shopped sales and even paid for expedited shipping for that one remote control car you waited until the last minute to buy (argh). You wrapped. You tagged. And after all that work, you feel… exhausted, right? Did you spend too much? Did you get what they really wanted? Did you remember everyone? Gift buying and giving can feel like a never-ending to-do list—and then there’s the unwrapping, which happens in a 30-minute, tornado-like flurry of tearing and tossing and not enough thanking. (“Wait, who gave me this remote control car again? Mom?”) So consider this our ultimate guide to buying meaningful, fun, and less expensive gifts and starting some fun traditions for handing them out. The entire holiday season is filled with opportunities for creative present exchanges, from your office Secret Santa to that boozy bash with good friends where no one can remember the White Elephant rules. With the following ideas and tips, gift giving will feel joyful again. Let our team of elves—including holiday party planners, etiquette experts, and Real Simple readers—enlighten you with smart strategies that will make any party or early-morning frenzy more memorable.
Make Gift-Giving More Surprising
For Friends and Family
- Start a rotating gift box. Anna Baldwin, a reader from Arlee, Montana, does this with her three best friends from college: She fills a box with locally made, low-cost items—one for each friend—and a personal note, and mails it off. The first friend takes out a gift, puts in three of her own, adds to the note, and ships everything on to the next. The box rotates like that until it has made the rounds of all the friends, ending up back with Anna, complete with personal notes from her pals and their gifts to her.
- Introduce a gag gift. Wrap up your most egregious or inexplicable Christmas present from last year (sad-eyed ceramic cat, anyone?) for an unsuspecting family member. It becomes that person’s responsibility to pass it along, like a hot potato, the next year.
- Have a cobweb party. This wacky search game was all the rage during the Victorian era. Designate one room for the party, and assign each player a yarn color. Tie one end of a spool of yarn to each gift—blue yarn to one player’s gift, red yarn to another, and so on. Unwind the yarn as you zigzag across the room, trailing it under furniture, looping it around banisters and over curtain rods, anywhere you can. You want to make it as difficult as possible for the gift recipient to follow his or her yarn through the “cobweb” of different colors to find the present. Hand each person his or her spool of yarn and let the mayhem ensue.
- Do a kids’ “musical chairs” gift exchange. “With children you have to be really careful because of their feelings,” says Lisa Kothari, owner of the national kids’ party-planning business Peppers and Pollywogs. “You have to make sure that everyone gets a gift.” Kothari suggests playing a version of musical chairs by having the kids sit in a circle and passing around wrapped gifts while Christmas music plays. The children get to keep whatever they’re holding when the music stops—more exciting than just picking a gift out of a bag.
- Do a Yankee Swap/White Elephant. “Stealing” from other participants gives this gift exchange game an element of unpredictability. Invite everyone to contribute a wrapped gift (a new item if you’re following Yankee Swap rules; a used one if you’re doing White Elephant). Draw numbers out of a hat to see who gets to pick from the pile first. Player No. 1 chooses and unwraps a gift, then shows it to everyone else. Player No. 2 then either “steals” that present or picks and unwraps another one from the pile. Player No. 3 can then steal either gift, or choose and unwrap another, and so on. Any player whose gift is stolen gets to pick again. The game continues until everyone has a gift.
- Play holiday trivia. Can you name all nine of Santa’s reindeer? If so, you get first pick of the presents in the pile. Players use clickers or simply raise their hands to answer, and once they get a present, they’re out of the competition. At the end, the moderator gets to either choose the last gift remaining or steal a gift from somebody else—a one-time-only privilege for all of his or her hard work.