How to Organize a Holiday Gift Exchange That People Will Actually Want to Participate In


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Exchanging gifts should be the most enjoyable part of the holidays, but anyone who’s gotten roped into a shitshow of a “Secret Santa” gift exchange knows better. Even a well-intentioned gift swap can easily turn into the kind of stressful, tedious, expensive headache that puts you off the idea for life.

The difference between a bad gift exchange and a great one isn’t the gifts or even the people involved, though—it’s the level of organization. Everyone knows that gift swaps need an appropriate budget, but other important details are often left up to chance. If your friend group or workplace wants to exchange gifts this holiday season, here’s how to make sure everyone has a good time.

Put someone in charge

Gift exchanges do not run on spontaneity alone. Anything that requires coordinated effort from multiple people during a very busy time of year needs ground rules and someone to enforce them, so your very first order of business should be electing (or appointing) a team captain.

Everyone is busy all the time; unless the entire group is made up of people with a bottomless appetite for gift-giving, someone is bound to forget. Prevent disaster by giving a responsible party the keys to the Elfster account (or the bowl of names) and putting them in charge of communicating deadlines and expectations.

Make it opt-in

Mandatory gift swaps are totally against the spirit of gift-giving. Even if they weren’t, the holidays are extremely fraught for a lot of people—and that includes the “fun” parts. If you want a successful, fun Secret Santa situation, it has to be totally optional, no questions asked. (For all the sickos out there, that means no hassling the non-participants for declining to participate.) If you find that like, two or three people out of 20 are interested, it may be better to just cancel the whole thing.

Plan early, plan often

It’s never too early to get your timeline sorted. Even if your group eventually decides to exchange gifts sometime in 2022, you should do your best to make that decision as soon as possible. A service like Elfster or Drawnames makes this easy by automatically notifying participants ahead of each deadline.

Choose your own date

Guess what? There’s no law that says all holiday gifts must be received by sundown on the eighth night of Hanukkah or 12:59 p.m. on Christmas Day. You can—and should—schedule your exchange literally any time you want.

When picking a date, be sure to take your group’s schedules and feelings about the holidays into account. An early-bird deadline is a fun way to kick the season off, which is great for people who look forward to the holidays every year. But postponing until New Year’s (or even later) gives everyone a little breather, which has its own perks. You can even turn Valentine’s Day into Secret Santa Day if you want—there are no rules, so do whatever works best for your group.

Keep a healthy perspective

Not to get too “Now, more than ever” about it, but it’s a weird time to be buying gifts. The workers who manufacture and transport products around the world are increasingly unsafe at work due to ever-worsening conditions, including material shortages and price increases; wage theft; union-busting; inhumane scheduling demands; a blatant disregard for physical safety; and poor or nonexistent healthcare and sick leave, all during a global pandemic that disproportionately affects low-wage workers and is still happening. (Whenever you hear the phrase “supply chain issues” or “labor shortage,” that’s what they’re referring to.)

All of this is to say that, despite everyone’s best efforts, their shit may not arrive on time and there’s nothing to be done about it. Try your best to roll with the punches—remember, this is supposed to be fun.