Sure, you could just hand over a gift, but why not present your presents in a more creative way?
You’ve spent weeks, maybe months, researching cool gifts for kids, the best gifts for women, and gift ideas for everyone else on your list. You’ve 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 (or here’s how to wrap a present, if you’re still working on that). 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, less-expensive gifts and turning some gift exchange ideas into fun traditions for handing them out. The entire holiday season is filled with opportunities for creative gift exchanges, from your office Secret Santa to that boozy bash with good friends where no one can remember the White Elephant rules. (Get those white elephant gift ideas ready now.)
With the following gift exchange 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 White Elephant gift exchange. “Stealing” from other participants gives this gift exchange game an element of unpredictability. Invite everyone to contribute a wrapped gift. 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. (This gift exchange game can also be called a Yankee Swap.)
- 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 their hard work.
Make gift-giving simpler
- Go in on a gift with (and for) your family. In lieu of presents, try renting a ski cabin for the weekend after Christmas or going on a beach escape together.
- Eliminate the guesswork. “I ask gift recipients to send me a wish list that I buy from. It saves time, effort, and returns, yet still preserves an element of surprise,” says Real Simple reader Robin McClellan of Lehigh Acres, Florida.
- Buy recurring gifts. You’ll know what to give, and the recipient will look forward to getting, say, an annual shipment of Florida citrus fruits or Vermont cheeses, a series of theater tickets, a museum membership, or even a nice desk calendar. Smart gift card ideas can also work well here.
Make gift-giving take longer (for the kids!)
- Try a treasure hunt. Save a few stocking-stuffer gifts (anything small and inexpensive), wrap them up, and hide them throughout the house. After the kids finish with Santa surprises, they can go off and look for new trinkets while you take a breather, get another cup of coffee, and gear up for unwrapping the presents under the tree.
- Play a game. Try Finish the Carol or Word Guess; either works for a family or friend gift exchange. Finish the Carol: Sit in a circle and pass each gift around to the tune of a holiday song. Designate someone to stop the song midverse. The person who is holding the gift has to finish the line. If she can, she gets the gift and sits out the rest of the game. If no, start the song again. Repeat until all the gifts are gone. Word Guess: Tape a fill-in-the-blank holiday phrase on each gift and have children answer before unwrapping. For example, Not a creature was stirring, not even a _________.
- Use a bottle. Try a twist on spin the bottle to take turns opening gifts. Give a bottle (or even a large candy cane) a spin. Whoever it points to either opens a gift, or, if they don’t have any left, designates another person to do the same.
Make gift-giving less costly
- Have a heartfelt conversation. Tell them up front you’re going to cut back. “Don’t make it a money issue with your kids, but talk about it in the context of what the holiday really means: ‘This is the time to be with family, not for getting new skis,’ ” says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies. “Children are resilient,” adds Meg Cox, who wrote The Book of New Family Traditions. “If you make the change gradually they’ll accept it.” Let your extended family know as early as possible that you’d like to give and receive less. (Though some, like grandparents, may be loath to do the same.)
- Be upfront. Tell them early, and be direct. Say, “I’m paring down this year—why don’t we just exchange cards or go out to lunch?” You may find that they’re actually relieved.
- Prioritize gratitude. “By all means, say ‘Thank you.’ But other than being super-appreciative, you do not have to reciprocate,” says Peggy Post, coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners.
Make gift-giving a charitable endeavor
- Adopt another family for the holidays. Instead of buying gifts for one another, sponsor a needy family. If you have kids, talk to them about the difference the gesture can make to the other family and make sure they’re okay with giving up presents (you can always get them something little). You can find a needy family through your local Salvation Army branch, which will provide a wish list to shop from.
- Put a charitable spin on secret Santa. Jeanne Benedict, an entertaining expert, suggests adding a philanthropic twist to the game: Instead of buying material gifts, make a $20 donation to a charity your recipient would support. For instance, is he or she an animal lover? Donate to the ASPCA. It makes a more meaningful gift than another stocking stuffer.
- Swap toys with Santa. Along with cookies and milk, leave (gently used) old toys under the tree on Christmas Eve for Santa to “take back to the North Pole.” (You can donate them to an organization like Toys for Tots or Goodwill.)
Make gift-giving a themed affair
- Do an ornament or craft exchange. Benedict suggests making handmade ornaments out of 4-inch-by-4-inch boxes that are light enough to hang on the tree. Inside the box, fashion a small kit of some kind, like a stamping kit, a jewelry-making kit, or a knitting kit—something fun that would be easy to pick up as a hobby. Each guest should bring a kit to the party and then exchange it, so that everybody takes home a handcrafted ornament and gets a new project to start on in the New Year.
- Try a pet present exchange. Incorporate your furry friends into your holiday celebrations. Dress up your pet in holiday garb, like a Santa hat (if they’ll allow it), then gather with your friends and their pets to share gifts. “Obviously you want to stay within the same species, either all cats or all dogs,” Benedict says. Theme the presents toward the pets: bones and biscuits for dogs, claw scratchers and catnip for cats.
- Swap cocktails. Give the gift of holiday “spirits”: Have guests bring gift bags full of the items needed to make a certain cocktail (like coffee liqueur, orange cognac, and Irish Cream for a B-52), and then exchange the bags. Or choose to exchange red, white, or sparkling wines.
Make gift-giving an international affair
- Germany and Czech Republic. Czech and German families hang an Advent calendar on the wall four Sundays before Christmas Eve. Each day on the calendar has a little window, behind which tiny toys and pieces of chocolate are hidden. Children open a new window every day until Christmas, delighted by the unveiling of a new treat and the countdown to the big day.
- The Netherlands. Dutch children receive their gifts on December 5, St. Nicholas Eve, when families gather to play treasure hunt games and exchange riddles. Presents are anonymously signed “Sinterklaas,” but a dedication is written on the wrapping paper to offer clues to the real gift-giver’s identity. A rhyming verse teases the recipient (in good humor, of course) or offers a hint at what’s inside. Other small, unwrapped gifts are hidden in odd places, like inside a potato or a cup of pudding—the more surprising, the better.
- Sweden. Swedes used to practice a tradition called julklapp (which translates as “Christmas knocks”), whereby a gift-giver would knock on his friend or relative’s door on Christmas Eve, quickly toss a present inside the opened door, then sprint away before the recipient had a chance to ID him. The mysterious packages were wrapped in many layers, one box inside another. Sometimes the only thing inside the final box was a clue to the real gift’s location. The more time the recipient spent on figuring out who gave the gift and where it was, the more successful the julklapp. Swedish children also believe in an alternative gift-giver to Santa Claus—the jultomten, a little gnome in a red cap who hides under the floorboards or in the attic until Christmas Eve, when he emerges to hand out gifts to the children.
- Canada (Nova Scotia). During the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6), masked jokesters called belsnicklers run around neighborhoods in Nova Scotia ringing doorbells, making loud noises, and demanding treats. If the hosts are able to identify the masked strangers, the belsnicklers must unmask themselves. They ask the children of the home if they’ve been good, then distribute candy to them, like a reverse trick-or-treat.
- Spain. On January 5, Epiphany Eve, Spanish children set their shoes outside their home and fill them with straw, carrots, and barley for the camels of the Three Kings, who they believe pass through Spain on the way to Bethlehem. During the night, the kings (not Santa Claus, who isn’t widely celebrated in Spain) fill the children’s shoes with gifts.
- Italy. Rather than Santa, Italian children believe in La Befana, an old witch who travels throughout Italy on a broom during Epiphany Eve, doling out presents, candies, and fruit to the good children and bags of coal to the bad children. A few weeks before her arrival, the children write wish lists with all the presents they want, then hide them in a chimney for La Befana to find. Italians practice another gift-giving tradition called the Urn of Fate, where a tall urn is filled with wrapped presents—one for each family member. Each person takes turns picking until they find their rightful gift.
- China. The peak of gift-giving in China is during the Chinese New Year. Unlike the rest of the world, which celebrates New Year’s on January 1, China celebrates it on the first day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar (January 25 in 2020). Elders hand out special red envelopes called hong bao, filled with money, to the young people in their lives. The amount of money is always an even number, like 88, but never includes the number 4, as it signifies bad luck.
- Greece. On January 1, Greeks bake a special cake or bread called vassilopita, which hides a foil-wrapped gold or silver coin. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will be lucky for the next year. Put a modern gift-giving spin on the tradition by wrapping slips of paper inside foil. On each piece of paper write an IOU for a movie or a night out for pizza.
Make gift-wrapping a group affair
- Host a wrapping party. Those presents aren’t going to wrap themselves, unfortunately, so why not have fun while getting the job done? Divvy up responsibility for supplies—ribbon, paper, decorative bags, bows, tags, scissors, and tape—to your guests so no one is shelling out for everything. Guests bring their own unwrapped presents. Set out the supplies, cue the festive music, and have everyone work together to get the job done.
- Cookie-swap packing party. Think of this as a holiday cookie exchange plus. Besides cookies to swap at the party, guests bring extras, along with metal tins, takeout containers, plastic boxes, and packing materials. Together, you carefully box up the extra cookies to ship to out-of-town family and friends.