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How to Play Dirty Santa: Rules, Variations, and Gift Ideas

For the past few years, the 12 adults in my extended family have gathered together around Christmastime to play our version of Dirty Santa.

Dirty Santa is a fun spin on the holiday gift exchange.

Dirty Santa is a fun spin on the holiday gift exchange.

Like White Elephant—But You Can Steal!

Dirty Santa is a family-friendly gift exchange game that has been a staple of holiday traditions for many years. The phrase was coined in the Southern states. It is called "dirty" because the game involves "stealing" more desirable gifts while scheming to avoid the gag gifts that nobody wants. The dirtier a thief you are, the better!

Dirty Santa is similar to both White Elephant and Yankee Swap in format. The main difference between Dirty Santa and the other two is that multiple rounds of gift stealing and scheming are encouraged in Dirty Santa.

One of the great things about the game is that it allows many opportunities for customization, so be sure to lay down some ground rules beforehand. General rules for the game as well as some popular deviations are listed in this article.

Requirements Before Playing

  • Number of Adults: Ideally, this game requires at least 6 adults, and I would suggest no more than 20. However, technically you can have as many players as you want.
  • Number of Gifts: Each participating adult must provide one unlabelled, gift-wrapped present of a predetermined value. Gifts can be serious, humorous or totally useless; however, effort should be made to wrap the gift in such a way that the contents remains unknown until opened.

Rules to the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange

The rules to the game are simple. Start off by placing the gifts in a central location where players can easily access them and make their selection.

  1. Decide who starts first. There are several ways to do this. Typically, everyone draws a number from a container and each guest then plays in sequence according to the number that they drew.
  2. Player 1 picks a gift from the central pile, opens it and shows it to everyone. The fun here is in the gift itself and the reaction of the recipient.
  3. Player 2 has a choice of either selecting an unopened gift from the pile or doing the dirty by taking the opened gift from Player 1. If Player 1's gift is stolen, then they must select another unopened gift from the remaining pile.
  4. Each subsequent player has a choice. They can either select an unopened gift from the pile, or take an already opened gift from any of the preceding players. In the event that their gift was stolen, the previous player can select another unopened gift from the pile or select one of the opened gifts from the other players (however, they cannot take back from the person who just took from them).
  5. The game ends when the last unopened gift is selected.
Dirty Santa gifts can either make your friends cheer or land you in some trouble.

Dirty Santa gifts can either make your friends cheer or land you in some trouble.

3 Variations of Dirty Santa

  1. The Guessing Game: Gifts are selected and exchanged before they are opened. Participants only know the shape, weight and feel of the wrapper to determine what gift they are potentially receiving. Gifts should be wrapped strategically. Big and beautifully-wrapped gifts are more likely to get selected early on. An alternative variation would include wrapping all the gifts in the same bag or box so that they are all identical.
  2. Put a Face to the Gift: Although gift exchanges are usually played anonymously, a variation of the game can involve participants attempting to guess who bought what gift, with a small prize being rewarded for correct answers. An alternative variation would be to place names onto gifts in the pool. This version works especially well when the players know each other.
  3. Same Pool: All participants buy gifts from the same store, whether it be a retail store, grocery store, flea market or eBay.

Spice Your Game Up!

  • Incentivize your participants to keep the game fresh and active. For example, participants will be encouraged to bring quality gifts if there are prizes for the player who bought the present that is stolen the most or the quickest.
  • Paired participants are usually able to provide more expensive gifts, but the couple would share the gift that they end up with.
  • Limit the number of steals by either item or person to prevent the game from going on for longer than is desired.
  • Introduce a skills/quiz master. The winner of each round selects who goes next.
Spice things up by hosting a game with guests who play in pairs!

Spice things up by hosting a game with guests who play in pairs!

Gift Ideas for Dirty Santa

  • Here are 25 Dirty Santa gift ideas for under $25.
  • Funny Gift Ideas for under $10.
  • A handmade-only theme would be ideal for a group of artists or bakers. The possibilities are endless and could range from cookies and cakes to artwork and crafts!
  • A gift card extravaganza, where participants all spend the same amount of money for cards at different stores.

Different Christmas Gift-Swapping Games

Dirty SantaWhite ElephantYankee Swap

Said to have originated in the Southern U.S. states.

"White Elephant" is said to be an old practice from Siam (present-day Thailand).

Most popular in England.

Gifts are encouraged to be either useful, comical or just plain worthless.

Gifts are usually of limited value to the owner. The purpose is to bring the strangest gift you can find.

Also involves "swapping", but usually the gifts are more practical.

Involves multiple rounds of stealing.

Stealing occurs less often because of the amount of gag gifts.

 

For the past few years, the adults in my extended family (12 of us total) have gathered together around Christmastime to play our version of Dirty Santa, and as you can imagine, the best gifts are battled over to the bitter end. Adding even further humour is the sheer uselessness of some of the "gifts". I was once lumbered with a giant painted acorn, the type normally adorning the top of a fence post; we continued the hilarity by having a competition of who could come up with the best use for it.

Try it. It's great fun.

Comments

Terry on January 02, 2020:

This is the way I originally played this game at work parties. My wife & I have been trying to get her family to play this game for years instead of buying gifts for everyone in the family. It is a much cheaper way for everyone to be involved in gift giving & recieving. We finally got part of the family to participate this year. The problem for me came when someone else laid out rules that I had never heard of & made the game shorter & less fun to me. By these rules not only does the number one person open a gift, but every person opens a gift first then decides if they want to keep it or steal someone else's. If you steal someone's gift you give them the gift you opened. If that person doesn't want what you gave them they can steal someone else's gift & give them the gift recieved when theirs was stolen & so on. It was never made clear to me if we had a choice of opening an unopened gift & leaving the opened gift recieved after your was stolen in the pile. But I don't think that was a choice. Because I think the point was for everyone to open a gift. If you have a large number of people I think this is ok. But with as few as we had (8 people) it made for less swapping & stealing & kind of slowed the fun to me. I enjoy the choice of opening or stealing. Anyway this is another alternate way of playing I guess. I looked up the rules & found this thread because I had never heard of this way of playing. I wondered if I just remembered wrong or if it was a known & used variant.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on November 14, 2017:

@Roe~True, the first in line can be lumbered with a present that they or no one else wants. Allowing them an extra turn at the end is an option, though that could create its own problems. Ultimately the fun is in the game and not the gifts, and whether interacting or just watching there is so much laughter to be had that any disappointment over a lousy gift is quickly forgotten. As I said, I was once lumbered with a giant acorn :)

Roe on November 13, 2017:

What happens to the number one person. I've heard they also get to go last because they (sometimes) never get to swap. Thanks

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on March 01, 2012:

@GlstngRosePetals ~ Hope you enjoy it as much as my family have. All the best.

GlstngRosePetals from Wouldn't You Like To Know on February 20, 2012:

Wow I'm going to have to try this game this year at christmas, it sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing :)

FrugalandFab from New Hampshire on December 13, 2011:

Great hub, creepy picture. We always called this game a Yankee swap and actually just played it last weekend at a Christmas party. I somehow ended up with a hideous cigar ashtray...yep, a cigar ash tray. Anyone care to guess what I'll be bringing to the Yankee swap next year? Ho ho ho

Moira Garcia Gallaga from Lisbon, Portugal on December 12, 2011:

I've encountered variations of this at office Christmas parties, though proper gifts were used. I like the idea of using useless and ridiculous gifts as your article suggests, makes it more fun. Love that picture, Dirty Santa indeed. Hehe. Nice hub Parrster.

Mary from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet. on December 12, 2011:

I played this game when I was about twenty ended up with a pretty good gift.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on December 12, 2011:

@Ghaelach ~ Good question. I did a search on wiki and found this article; it appears you may have been hibernating :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_elephant_gift_e...

It appears that it is a common game to North America, and known under various names; Yankee Swap, Chinese Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa, Thieving Secret Santa, Parcel Pass, Christmas Swamp Thing, or Pollyanna.

Ghaelach on December 12, 2011:

Hi Parrster.

A great hub.

Q. Is this a US game??? because i've never heard of it or may be i was hibernating.

It sound a great game and the mind boggles when you think of the different variations you could try.

UP/A/I.

LOL Ghaelach

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on December 11, 2011:

@Gypsy Rose Lee ~ Sounds like you may have a goblin for a neighbour :)

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on December 11, 2011:

Sounds interesting and amusing. That Santa at the head of the hub looks like one of my neighbors while drunk during the holiday season. lol

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on December 11, 2011:

@bradybybun ~ glad I could bring back the memories, hope you have a great xmas and get to enjoy another memorable game of dirty santa.

@tammyswallow ~ I wonder why it would be called Chinese Christmas? Maybe like Chinese Whispers, where you never knew what you were going to end up hearing, with Chinese Christmas you never know what you're going to end up keeping. Thanks for commenting. Photo spooked me too :)

Tammy from North Carolina on December 11, 2011:

I totally forgot about this game. When I played it years ago we called it Chinese Christmas. Very nice hub.. scary photo!

bradybynum1 from Texas on December 11, 2011:

I had played this game a long time ago and had hoped to play it again. This really refreshed my memory on the rules. Thanks!

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