Secret Santa events during the Christmas period, or indeed similar events held at other times of the year, have developed their own culture and rules. These naturally depend on the particular variation on Secret Santa that applies. For instance, Secret Santa raids have different rules from Trashy Secret Santas and different rules again than Secret Santa flashmobs. Of course it’s completely up to you as to how much you stick to the rules or just take them as an inspiration to help you to do things your way.
First of all you should decide whether to determine in advance who will give gifts to whom, or whether it should be left to chance. If the gift giver draws lots to find out who they will be giving a gift to, you should of course ensure that they can’t draw their own name out of the hat, as no one would want to give themselves a surprise gift! If the recipient is known, it is of course possible to add a personal touch to the gift through the addition of a message or a little poem with a connection to the recipient.
Of course it is also possible to hold off on drawing the names until all gifts have been bought, although in that case it’s not possible to personalize the gifts.
Traditional Secret Santa, as well as variants such as Tacky Secret Santa or Horror Secret Santa can also have additional rules that turn them into Secret Santa raids. Raids involve placing all the gifts that have been brought to the event on a table or at a particular location and then one of the guests (generally the oldest or the youngest) is invited to start the proceedings. The guest selects one of the gifts and unwraps it. Then it’s the next guest’s turn: this guest gets to decide whether to take a gift from the pile and unwraps it, or whether they’d rather have the first guest’s gift. The third guest can then decide whether to take the first or second guest’s gift or if they would rather take a gift from the pile. When all guests have had their turn, it is likely that some participants will be left empty handed. They can then decide whether they would like to take a gift from the remaining pile, or if they would rather “raid” the guests who have gifts already. This theme is then continued until everyone has a gift in his or her hands.
There is another rule that can be applied to any version of Secret Santa, where dice are all-important. As with Secret Santa raids, the dice allow guests to bag themselves a different gift. This is however only possible after the guest has thrown a six. Naturally you can also attribute certain meanings to other numbers, so that for instance a six allows the player to take part in a raid and a one gives the player the right to exchange their gift for someone else’s.
A popular Secret Santa variant (in this case a sub-variant of Trashy Secret Santa) uses dice as follows: the guests each line up to take a package from the pile that has been prepared in advance. It’s important to pay close attention to the planning, so that there are an equal number of packages available to all participants. As soon as the pile of packages has been exhausted, people start to throw dice. A six allows the player to take another player’s package away; getting a one requires the player to exchange his or her package with another player. If a three is rolled, everyone who is playing has to exchange his or her package with the player alongside. This dice-throwing variation can be played for as long as you like, but in order to bring a clear end to the game it is sensible to choose a defined period such as a half-hour. That increases tension, particularly if one of the other players is taking his or her time over rolling the die.
Every form of Secret Santa has two basic rules that are particularly important:
1. How much should the Secret Santa gift cost; and
2. Does the gift need to suit any particular theme?
Trashy Secret Santa requires participants to establish whether gifts can be purchased brand new or whether people can only bring items that they already had at home. Even in the case of the most straightforward Secret Santa, it’s important to set a specific price range that everyone must stick to. If you’re organizing a special Secret Santa event or party that features a particular theme, you need to make sure that the gifts that have been brought along don’t miss the point entirely. Organizers and guests should therefore specifically discuss in advance how much freedom the theme allows and whether small deviations from the theme are acceptable. On occasions like these, it is better to be too open rather than too reserved, as this can often lead to the craziest gifts being brought along and these gifts are the ones that provide the most amusement and joy.
Variations on Secret Santa such as the white elephant gift exchange also need guests to stick to the rules to work effectively. The attraction of the white elephant gift exchange in particular is that the gifts are not really trash, but are instead things that might be harder to love – yet what to one person is just a horrible wedding gift from the mother-in-law can be a desperately sought-after cooking utensil to someone else.