How to Play Dirty Santa

Updated on January 4, 2018
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Among his varied other writing interests, Richard Parr aspires to creating interesting and inspiring stories about life.

Every Christmas the adults in my extended family (twelve of us) get together and, for the past few years, we've played our version of Dirty Santa.

Dirty Santa can be hugely entertaining, especially if you are anticipating significant number of adults gathering for Christmas celebrations. I say adults because the nature and rules of this game are rarely appreciated by children; especially the young. Let me explain...


  • Number of Adults: Ideally this game requires at least six adults; and would suggest no more than twenty; though you can technically have as many playing as you want.

  • Number of Gifts: Each participating adult must provide one unlabelled, gift-wrapped present of a predetermined value; for example, between $5 - $20. Gifts can be serious, humorous or ridiculous, however, effort should be made to wrap the gift in such a way that the contents remains unknown until opened.

The Rules

They are simple:

  • The gifts are placed in a central location where players can easily access and make their selection.

  • Select who starts. There are several ways to do this. Typically everyone draws a number from a container; one containing the same number of tokens as there are players. Each then plays in sequence. In our version we actually have a quiz/skill challenge. The winner of each round selects who goes next. NOTE: this does require a quiz master.
  • First Player. The game starts. Whoever's turn it is to go first picks a gift from the central pile, and opens it. They show everyone. Of course, the fun here is in the gift itself and the reaction of the recipient. There will normally be a dynamic range of gifts, from desirable to useless, practical to hilarious. The first player now takes their seat with their gift in hand.

  • Player 2 has a choice. Player 2 now has the choice of either selecting another unopened gift from the central pile or, doing the dirty, taking the opened gift from Player 1; in which case Player 1 must select another unopened gift from the remaining pile.
  • Each subsequent Player has a choice. Select an unopened gift from the pile, or take an already opened gift from any of the preceding players; in which case that preceding 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).
  • The 3rd time owned-retired rule. This is optional, but if you have taken possession of a gift for the third time, it is considered yours and retired from the game; you get to keep it. For example: player 1 selected a gift from the table; kitchen scales (first ownership). Player two takes it from her, so player 1 selects another gift from the pile; a vase. Player 3, takes the vase from her. Player 1 takes back the scales from player 2 (second ownership). Player 4 takes the scales from player 1. Player 1 selects another gift from the pile; mp3 player. Player 5 takes the mp3 from Player 1. Player 1 takes back the kitchen scales from player 4 (3rd ownership, she gets to keep it).
  • How the Game Ends. When the last unopened gift is selected, the game ends.

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.

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    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 5 months ago from Australia

      @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 :)

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      Roe 5 months ago

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

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

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

    • GlstngRosePetals profile image

      GlstngRosePetals 6 years ago from Wouldn't You Like To Know

      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 profile image

      FrugalandFab 6 years ago from New Hampshire

      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

    • moiragallaga profile image

      Moira Garcia Gallaga 6 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      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.

    • prettynutjob30 profile image

      Mary 6 years ago from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet.

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

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

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

      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.

    • profile image

      Ghaelach 6 years ago

      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.


      LOL Ghaelach

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

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

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 6 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      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

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

      @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 :)

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from North Carolina

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

    • bradybynum1 profile image

      bradybynum1 6 years ago from Texas

      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!