This is a fact: It’s woefully easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of purchasing—or making—holiday gifts. But don’t let that suck the joy out of the actual act of giving itself. A gift exchange should be fun; with the right approach, it can also be imaginative, rewarding, and, yes, even a way to cut back on presents. Holiday party planners, etiquette experts, and readers share strategies for making a gift exchange 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.