Gift Exchange Ideas for Large, Broke Family
November 1, 2017 8:09 AM   Subscribe

White Elephant did not work out well for us last year. My family found the rules confusing and several people were disappointed with the results. Please help me find an alternative gift exchange tradition.

We have a large family holiday gathering every year. None of us make a whole lot of money, and this year, a few of us are still recovering from hurricane season.

Two years ago, we decided to only get gifts for the children. Traditional Grandma didn't like this much, so last year we attempted a white elephant. Nobody seemed to know or understand the rules, and I'm not sure anyone really enjoyed it.

I am seeking alternative traditions. Any "rules" should be simple and straight-forward. It should be fun, and not too expensive, for 15 to 20 people. Also, several of us travel for this gathering so it needs to be easy to organize without everyone being local.

My first instinct is Secret Santa, but I'm not sure how we'd organize that in advance. I know there are websites that can help with this. Do you know any that are super simple to use and don't require a lot of info to sign up?

All other ideas are greatly appreciated!
posted by MuChao to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My first instinct is Secret Santa, but I'm not sure how we'd organize that in advance.

Just have one person put everyone's name in a hat, and pull them out randomly assigning each name to a family member. That person then tells each person who they're buying for. That's all there is to it. You don't need some sort of online system that everyone needs to sign up to. (You should also set a price limit.)
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:15 AM on November 1, 2017 [12 favorites]

posted by lyssabee at 8:16 AM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

My group of friends has used Elfster for Secret Santa in the past. I think it has worked well, though it may require each person to affirmatively sign up, via email link, to participate. If I recall correctly, it also has the option (though not the requirement) for each person to include a wishlist or other suggestions, if that is helpful to your family.

I recommend setting a price ceiling for gifts, in order to keep things more equitable. I have a friend who has a large family and they do (at least) two separate Secret Santas. One is for adults: each adult draws someone else's name and buys that person a gift. The other is for children and can be done various ways.
posted by Caz721 at 8:18 AM on November 1, 2017

My family has done some version of Secret Santa for years, and yeah, the low-tech solution is that someone is the organizer, draws names, and informs everyone who their draw is. It's minimally confusing. (We do it just for the kids, not the adults, which seems to limit disparities and confusion).
posted by dismas at 8:18 AM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've used this Secret Santa Generator before. Free and super simple. It sends an email to each participant with the name of their assigned giftee. No one (including the organizer) needs to create an account.
posted by Siobhan at 8:21 AM on November 1, 2017

We "solved" this by the adults buying a family gift for the traditional grandma, talking out loud a lot about how NICE the holiday was without the hassle of gifts and how we could just ENJOY each other as a FAMILY spending time TOGETHER etc, and letting traditional grandma hide money in our pockets when she hugged us.
posted by phunniemee at 8:25 AM on November 1, 2017 [19 favorites]

If you decide to go the Secret Santa route, you can start a Thanksgiving tradition that one of the younger kids (it can rotate to a different kid every year) can pick names (out of hat, out of a jar, whatever) to match up Secret Santa receivers and givers. Then the kid has to make a super secret, giggly meeting or phone call to each family member and whisper who they "got" that year. In our family, I loved getting that phone call from my nephew and it always was a treasured moment for us to bond over. And it was a much coveted job for the child.

During tough years when we knew people didn't have a lot of money, the rule was no more than $5 or $10 per gift. The gift just had to be meaningful or it could be a joke. On even really tough years, we did reduce it to gifts for the kids only.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:31 AM on November 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

We always draw a single name in larger families if we must exchange gifts. Usually you then contact your giftee's spouse or parent to get a good ides for them. In one friend group, we explicitly send the group a wishlist and set a hard $25 limit. That can be in addition to a direct exchange with the grandparents.

We do a dice game in my small family where we each buy a few small gifts and put them in a big pile. Then we take turns rolling two dice and when you get doubles, you pull from the pile. It gets bigger every year because we put in joke gifts and often regift them the next year. It ends up being a lot of treats, small beauty products, calendars and toys.
posted by soelo at 8:32 AM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

The larger side of my family does a non secret santa. Everyone pulls names, and re-pulls if they get a sibling. We do two separate draws for the two younger generations. Everyone buys the grandparents presents (and until recently they bought everyone presents, but switched a few years ago to cash.)
posted by quaking fajita at 8:34 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sorry, forgot to add--it started out as an actual secret santa, but at some point the secrets started to dissolve and no one really cares. That's not the point, really.
posted by quaking fajita at 8:36 AM on November 1, 2017

This might be more confusing, not less, but my perennially broke family always did a secret santa plus a white elephant. The Secret Santa was so that you could get one present you wanted, and the White Elephant was to boost the number of prettily wrapped packages under the tree and induce a little bit of merriment and Christmas cheer.
posted by muddgirl at 8:38 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Once my family's grandkid brood grew to 8 kids we had had enough - it was just too many gifts, and too expensive. As an extended family we agreed to eliminate gifts from adult-to-adult and started a new tradition at Thanksgiving. Our tradition is to "pick a kid from the hat" so that one grandchild picks a brother/sister/cousin out of a hat at random and is charged with the gift for that one kid, with a budget of say $50 or $100 (or whatever). Everyone else gets a card. Now, Grandma being grandma, can do whatever she wants and buy something for all the grandkids, but down at the children and grandchildren level, each only has to buy for a few others rather than everybody buys for everybody, which allows time for a thoughtful, meaningful gifts rather than a spray of cheap gifts. Saves time, money and stress all around. It's worked for us for years. As the parent now we only need to worry about gifts for a couple nieces/nephews, grandma, and our own kids.
posted by chocolate_butch at 8:41 AM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The large side of my family does like a secret santa but with a theme each year. The theme dictates the gift and thus limits the money involved. Past years have included: a christmas ornament, board/card games, something edible, a favorite movie on DVD, cozy accessories (hat, gloves, scarf or slippers).

Alternatively, you could have everyone bring one of a thing and then do a game of opening and stealing like in a white elephant gift exchange.
posted by purple_bird at 8:48 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

A family exchange that worked well for us is to do an adult gift card exchange. Every adult buys one gift card worth no more than $25 dollars, wrapped up with some inexpensive Christmas-themed item, a regifted item from last year, or other "white elephant" type item. Target, Home Depot, and Walmart gift cards were especially popular, and also practical, which is helpful for those lean years.

On exchange day, the gifts go into the center of the room. The first person chooses an item and opens it. The second person can either choose a new item, or steal from the first person who opened the first item. This continues until the last new item is opened and is either kept or stolen. Last year, I contributed a $25 Target gift card wrapped in an inexpensive box of chocolates, which was a popular item and was stolen multiple times..

This has the added bonus of being a bit of a game, which is helpful. Also, the opportunity to steal things from relatives is always holiday gold.
posted by answergrape at 8:54 AM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

My husband's family used to do a gift grab. Everyone brought a gift costing a pre-set amount - I think $15, put all the gifts in a pile, and everyone who brought a gift could then grab one. There was a male pile and a female pile. After the first year I learned to grab the obvious gift card from the heap. lest I be stuck with Santa-themed dishtowels from the dollar store again. I think it would be neat to declare a theme (candy, food gifts, favorite books, bottle of booze) and set a price limit. Everyone gets a gift and has the fun of opening it but it's a low-stress thing to shop for.
posted by Kangaroo at 9:05 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

What about doing the Quonsmas method for family? I think knowing special interests and dislikes can really cut down on people feeling disappointed, even within a set spending limit.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:18 AM on November 1, 2017

My family does a yankee swap with a $25 limit for gifts. It usually works out well, because people bring enough of a mix of adult and kid-friendly gifts that most people walk away with something they like. Plus, opening and swapping/stealing the gifts is a blast. Two years ago, the show-stealing moment was that my father brought a Himalayan-salt lamp in the shape of a cat (it was hideous, but has "healing properties" according to my dad). My good-natured then-boyfriend opened the cat lamp and appeared to be stuck with it... until the last round. As the last Yankee Swap "chooser" my 8-year-old nephew mustered all of his courage (you could tell he was nervous because he's not supposed to "take things" from others) and sheepishly asked if he could have the cat lamp. He's been proudly displaying it in his bedroom ever since.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 9:20 AM on November 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

Seconding soelo's dice game recommendation. Our family is simply too large to buy for everyone, and selectively providing gifts always ends in tears. So we decided that only parents are obligated to provide gifts to their own children, and only those children will receive gifts.

The rest of us play the dice game. Everyone brings a wrapped item worth approximately $10. We play the first round with wrapped gifts; then call a break to unwrap and display them. The next round is much livelier, once people roll doubles and start to 'steal' the item they've got their eye on from another. At the end of the game, anyone who has no gift is entitled to make his or her choice from anyone who ended up with more than one gift.

The best part: instead of obsessing over what we're hoping to get as gifts, we're all engaged in a friendly competition to come up with a particularly amusing, ingenious, or desirable yet inexpensive item. We can't wait to unwrap them all and see what we've all come up with for the game.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2017

I attend my partner's large (25+ person) family Christmas last year and watched the adults do a white elephant/stealing gifts type of exchange. Honestly, unless you know that EVERYONE in your family enjoys competition, it was pretty stressful for the members who don't like stealing or being stolen from. I'd definitely recommend an old-fashioned secret santa, which results in everyone getting a personalized gift that the giver thought they specifically would enjoy.
posted by serelliya at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

In my dad's huge family, the cousins/grandkids would swap names at Thanksgiving and exchange gifts at Christmas. Sometimes the kids would have gifts for the whole family to share, like personalized notepads, cinnamon rolls, jellies. There weren't many individual gifts at that level, because there were just too many people. (Except for my Great-Aunt Evelyn, who had no kids of her own and always brought wrapped gifts - usually a jigsaw puzzle - for all 15 of us grandkids - may she R.I.P.)
posted by jhope71 at 10:03 AM on November 1, 2017

We draw names at Thanksgiving and give each other Christmas ornaments. It’s aomerhing fun to unwrap, and the kids will have their own collections when they are old enough to establish their own residences.

I also think ornaments could work without drawing names. Everyone brings a wrapped ornament and then use whatever game or rules you like to swap. We like drawing names so the ornaments can be more tailored to the reciepient.

We had bad experiences with Secret Santa and the white elephant swaps.

Edited to add: bad experience with secret Santa - adult broke dollar amount limit and bought an American Girl doll for a child. I think our limit that year was $30. Children cried.

Bad experience with white elephant - people get mad that gifts are “stolen” . Other people just sad that they have additional crap to take to Goodwill.
posted by MadMadam at 10:45 AM on November 1, 2017

My extended family (mom's side) asks people to come up with little games and contests (who can think of the most Christmas carol titles? who does the best drawing of Frosty the Snowman with their eyes closed? guess how many Hershey's Kisses are in this jar? Holiday Bingo! etc.) and the host of that particular game or contest will provide a prize(s) for the winner(s), usually little items less than $10. You're not required to contribute a game or participate at all, but most of us adults end up hosting at least one contest. One year I set up a little race of wind-up toys and called it the Holiday .0005 K and that was a hit.

All attendees also have their name thrown into a hat and a name is drawn every 10 minutes. When your name is drawn, you get to select a $1 scratch off lottery ticket from the lottery ticket pile.
posted by castlebravo at 10:55 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my experience, Traditional Grandma isn't going to like anything that isn't traditional everyone-gets-gifts-for-everyone. The key is to work around her. One option that worked in my family was that everyone from a certain generation "on down" was in a Secret Santa, and older (more traditional folks) did as they pleased. They generally either didn't want gifts or got a group gift from all the kids anyway, so it worked well.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:00 PM on November 1, 2017

A few years ago we made a general rule for grownups of Consumable Gifts Only. There's a bit of a practical ceiling on cost, it seemed to encourage handmade gifts, it made both traditional and untraditional folks less unhappy.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Kids get deluged with toys, adults get deluged with nice enough stuff, but the toys end up in a bucket except your niece unaccountably loves that widget, and your sister knows what kind of gloves you like, so that works out. The 'Yankee Swap' where presents move around is kind of horrible, plus, gifts have to be generic.

Try something like a DVD swap where you pick names, and everybody gets somebody else a DVD. Plus, you have something to watch. You can also do: socks, music, books, games, umbrellas, and I'm sure there's more. I would far rather have a couple pairs of terrific socks than 90% of the consumer junk out there. If Mom or Grandma wants to be exempt and get individual gifts, that's fine.

Best gift was when I pillaged the family photos and scanned a bunch and burned cds. And I wore that mixtape my brother made me right out.

When I worked in bookstores, I always gave books, of course, and always a few joke books so my corny brother could read jokes aloud and then cackle. Some of the best times were playing board games or the Christmas we learned that Mom was a hell of a poker player.

Develop some traditions because they provide that sense of tradition and something to do and they end up being fun. Stick a fruitcake in soebody's stocking. Sing Christmas carols. Make homemade eggnog. Get sleigh bells and ring them late at night. In my family we read Polar Express on Christmas Eve.
posted by theora55 at 12:48 PM on November 1, 2017

My family has been doing secret Santa for at least 30 years. Originally one of the 6 pairs of aunts/uncles would draw a name for a single niece/nephew at Christmas. Now my cousins and I do it independently. It’s a lot of fun, I highly recommend it. Just assign someone to draw names at Christmas.
posted by pintapicasso at 1:18 PM on November 1, 2017

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