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Dirty Santa

The holiday season is a time for giving gifts, spending time with loved ones, and participating in festive traditions. One tradition that has become increasingly popular over the past few decades is the Dirty Santa gift exchange. This fun game is known by many names – White Elephant, Yankee Swap, Thieving Secret Santa – but they all follow the same basic concept. The object of Dirty Santa is to have a fun and entertaining gift exchange experience. While the game involves “stealing” gifts from one another, the primary objective isn’t necessarily to accumulate the most valuable or coveted item. Instead, the emphasis is on the social interaction, laughter, and the enjoyment of seeing how the gifts are received and exchanged. It’s about creating memorable moments and sharing a sense of camaraderie with friends, family, or colleagues during the holidays.

Numerous wrapped presents under a Christmas tree

Origins of Dirty Santa

While the exact origins are unclear, Dirty Santa likely derives from other gift exchange games played for centuries. Some sources say it originated in the 1930s and became popular during the Great Depression as a way to exchange gifts without expense. 

The “Dirty Santa” name itself didn’t arise until the 1980s. Some believe it refers to the stealing and unpredictable nature of the game, you can “do someone dirty” by stealing their gift. Others say it comes from people choosing silly, tacky, or dirty gifts as a joke.

Dirty Santa Rules

The rules can vary, but the basic gameplay is as follows:

  • A Dirty Santa gift exchange is generally played with 5-20 participants. The ideal number is around 10-15 people. 
  • Participants are instructed to bring a wrapped gift to contribute to the pool. The gifts should generally have a $10-$20 value and be appropriate for anyone.
  • The gifts are placed in a central spot. Players draw numbers to determine the order in which they will take turns selecting presents. The person who drew #1 goes first, chooses a gift from the pile, and unwraps it for all to see. 
  • The person with #2 can either choose to “steal” the first person’s gift or select an unopened gift from the pool. If #1’s gift is stolen, they get to choose another wrapped gift. Whenever a gift is stolen, the person last stolen from also gets to choose a new gift.
  • This continues, with participants choosing whether to open a new gift or steal an already opened gift from someone else. The person who drew #1 gets the last choice and can steal any gift or choose the final remaining wrapped prize.

Dirty Santa Tips & Guidelines

To ensure your gift exchange is a success, keep these tips in mind:

  • Set a clear price limit so gifts are comparable. A $10-$20 limit works for most groups.
  • Keep gifts general and family-friendly if kids are playing. Save risqué items for adults-only parties.
  • Consider a themed exchange where all gifts must match a motif like “movie night” or “relaxation.” 
  • Remind participants to keep an open mind about stolen gifts. The silliness and stealing is all part of the fun!
  • Appoint someone as the “game leader” to keep things moving smoothly and settle disputes.
  • Allow stealing gifts a couple times per item, but not so much that the game drags on.
  • Provide festive snacks, music, and cocktails to keep the holiday cheer flowing!
Five Adults and one child laughing during Christmas gathering while looking at a wrapped gift.

Variations of the Game

While there are the standard rules noted above, there are many variations:

  • Limit how many times one can steal a gift, such as 3 steal limit or 2 steals max. This prevents the same popular gift from being fought over endlessly.
  • Dirty Santa gifts can have a spending cap higher or lower than $20. Some do gag gifts under $5.
  • Bring an item from your home instead of a brand new gift.
  • Rather than drawing numbers, sometimes people roll dice or play rock paper scissors to determine order. 
  • With larger groups, the game may be played in several rounds with new gift pools. Winners of each round advance to the championship.
  • Allow the stealing of gifts at any time, even multiple times from the same person.

No matter how it’s played, a Dirty Santa gift exchange leads to delightful chaos, laughter, and memories.

Santa Claus with hands on eyeglasses, mouth open wide, looking surprised.

 Dirty Santa Gift Ideas

Dirty Santa is all about finding gifts that get laughs or cause excitement when stolen. Consider these ideas:

Hot items– trendy tech gifts, gift cards, premium alcohol, lottery tickets

Unusual Gifts- giant candy bars, bacon-scented products, weird kitchen gadgets

Funny Gag Gifts– whoopie cushions, ugly Christmas sweaters, fake mustaches, silly socks

Self Care & Relaxation- shower bombs, cozy slippers, candles, luxury hand cream

Sentimental Gifts- homemade cookies, family photo calendar, homemade coupon book

 Get creative and tailor your ideas to the personalities in your group.

Why It’s Fun

  • Surprise Factor– Since gifts are wrapped, there’s an air of mystery and anticipation over what each package might hold. Participants don’t know if they’ll unwrap something hilarious, handy, or downright weird. This unpredictability adds to the excitement.
  • Competition- The stealing component injects a spirit of competition and strategy into the exchange. There’s often lively banter as people try to “steal” the best gifts from each other. This creates a playful, interactive dynamic.
  • Humor- Seeing the silly, impractical, and downright bizarre gifts people come up with heightens the humor and laughter. Part of the tradition is finding and contributing a gift that will get a reaction – the more over-the-top, the better. The comedic value is a huge appeal.
  • Unconventional Gifts- It’s a chance to give and receive gifts that are outside the normal range of holiday presents. People are encouraged to think creatively and unconventionally. This results in everything from ironic to wacky gifts that take gift-giving to a more lighthearted realm.
  • Bonding Experience- Playing this fast-paced, high-energy game together acts as a shared experience that brings people closer and often unveils people’s competitive and playful sides.

 Dirty Santa is more than just a game; it’s an opportunity to create new traditions that can be passed down through the years. Whether you’re considering introducing it to your own family, bringing it to the office for a dose of holiday cheer, sharing the joy with residents at a senior center, or organizing a light-hearted version for kids, Dirty Santa holds the promise of becoming a cherished annual event.

Christmas ornament of Santa Clause drinking a coke with his eyes shut. Ornament is hanging on a tree.


  1. We play this game at every Christmas gathering although we do call it white elephant. Sometimes we go by age, like the oldest goes first and so on. We have also played it by birthday month, like the person born in January goes first. However we play it, it is always so much fun. Thank you for other ideas.

    1. White Elephant is another name for this game, you are so right! Great idea going by oldest or by birthday! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas!

  2. I always forget the rules part of dirty Santa so this is so helpful. Also, I LOVE the gift ideas. Especially the bacon scented products. LOL!!!

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