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Secret Santa Rules: How To Make Your Gift Exchange Go Smoothly

Smart ideas to make sure everyone has fun (and no one goes broke in the process).

Happy holidays, readers!

We've updated this story (which is still so useful) to make sure it shows you products available to buy in 2018. We hope you enjoy it! For gift guides published this year, be sure to check out:

We've also included a few survival tips for the holidays below.

Christmas is less than a month away and you know the holiday season is in full swing. That also means your time for shopping for holiday gifts is getting shorter. If you're a participant in a Secret Santa exchange — among friends, family, or coworkers — it can make your holiday giving easier, or it can make it a lot more awkward.

Secret Santa exchanges are meant to be fun, so don't take it too seriously — but a few ground rules can help to ensure that everyone involved has a good time. Here are 12 tips for making your holiday gift exchanges go smoothly.

1. Pick your names: There are two basic structures for a Secret Santa exchange. In the first, you pick names and then each person buys for their selected recipient. The identity of the gift giver is kept a secret from the recipient until the exchange.

2. Or make it interesting: Alternately, you can do what some call a White Elephant exchange or Yankee Swap. Everyone brings a general gift to the exchange. The first recipient chooses a wrapped gift and opens it. The second recipient can choose a different wrapped gift, or steal the unwrapped gift from the first person. Things continue that way until everyone has an unwrapped gift — for better or for worse!

3. Set a price limit: Capping the amount that can be spent per gift helps to keep the exchanges fair, and prevents anyone from feeling guilty about what they've given or received. Spending $40 when the limit was $20 may seem generous, but it just ends up making others uncomfortable.

And the best presents aren't always the ones that cost the most. "One year, my cousin picked my name, and his family has very little money. But he got me this little snowman made out of fake ice cubes. His wife thought he was NUTS and almost made him return it," says Ky Ivany, who participates in a family exchange each year. "But I opened it, and I had seen these ice cube snowmen before, and I was like, 'I LOVE THESE SNOWMEN! WOOOOOO!' It was great!"

4. Make it serious: When you're picking names, it gives you the chance to really focus on finding one great gift for your recipient. It's a lot more satisfying than scrambling to get a bunch of cheap gifts for a ton of people out of a sense of obligation.

5. Or be silly: With a White Elephant exchange, sometimes joke gifts are part of the fun. Trying NOT to get a particular gift is almost as fun as trying to snag a really good one.

6. Consider regifting: Did you receive a gift that isn't suitable for you, but is something someone else might enjoy? It could be the perfect candidate for your office Secret Santa exchange. Just remember to make sure that the recipient will actually enjoy it and not feel like the target for your clutter unloading. And don't regift something to the person who gave it to you in the first place!

7. Shop sales: If you know you participate in a few gift exchanges during the holidays, keep your eye out for great deals on gift options throughout the year. The influx of Black Friday sales also provides some great options.

8. Lighten the family load: Is it becoming a financial burden to get presents for your growing extended family. Consider putting the names of all the adults in a hat, then having everyone pick one. If your family is full of kids, skip the gifts for adults altogether and have each child pick a cousin's name.

9. Do a little research: Sure, you can get a generic gift, and that works great for a White Elephant exchange. But if you pick someone's name, try to get a gift that fits the recipient. If you don't know the person well, ask some questions. You'll really make someone's day if you get them something that's perfect when they were expecting something like a box of chocolate that cost five cents less than your gift limit.

10. Be gracious: So your Secret Santa didn't do the research, and you got wine when you're a teetotaller, or candy and you're diabetic. Receive the gift graciously, in any case — nobody wins if you're rude, and people will remember your class when it comes to next year's exchange.

11. Remember your audience: If you're doing a Secret Santa exchange among close friends, you can get away with a somewhat off-colour gift that references your shared sense of humour. Similarly, if you pick your closest sibling in your family exchange, feel free to give something that brings to mind a joke or funny story from your history. But if your recipient is your new sister-in-law, keep it clean. And don't give anything in a work exchange that would be otherwise inappropriate in the office — regardless of how close you and your Secret Santa pick may be outside of work.

12. You can bow out — early: If you can't afford to participate, or just don't want to, it is completely acceptable to bow out before names are drawn. "I like picking out a present for a specific person and a Yankee Swap is just not as fun to me," Ivany said. "A couple of extended family gatherings have Yankee Swaps every year and I just opt out."

Looking for some gift ideas for your Secret Santa exchange? Check these out:

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