Group gift exchanges like Yankee swaps or Secret Santas?
November 26, 2017 5:22 PM   Subscribe

What are some ways families and groups can exchange gifts or otherwise do a Christmassy thing without everyone getting a gift for everyone else?

My family, and I bet yours, are at a place where getting gifts for each brother, sister-in-law, grandchild, grandchild's boyfriend etc, is just not practical. It's too much work and too much stress to get a gift for someone you don't really know all that well, a gift that they can probably just go buy themselves anyway.

We've tried doing a Yankee swap and that doesn't work all that well because everyone's tastes seem to be different. One year everyone wound up with the gift they brought.

The past couple of years we've done a wine swap, with each couple bringing two bottles of wine and swapping them so that each couple goes home with two different bottles of wine. It works, but I'd like to do something else.

What alternatives are there? Secret Santa and... what else?

Things I'm not interested in:
  • Everyone contributes to a charity. This won't work for a number of reasons.
  • Everyone makes something. Not with this crowd.
  • Cookie swap. Not everyone cooks.
I don't want to just do nothing. There should be some sort of "gather 'round the tree and give/get something to/from someone" but without the endless giving and getting something to and from everyone.
posted by bondcliff to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My family has a system where each "adult" buys a gift for between 1 and 3 other relatives, spending on the ratio of adults to non-adults. My sister builds a table by hand showing who is giving to who. Everyone gets a gift, gifts for children is budgeted at $50 each and gifts for adults (which may be a couple) is $150. She tweaks it so that e.g the fairly broke new grad cousin just buys a gift for one child, and so on.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:30 PM on November 26, 2017

We have a google spreadsheet, where each adult has their own tab. You add items you might like on your tab. Secret Santa partners are announced (secretly) and you get that one person some items from their page. We have a price limit. You get something you want, and the buyer doesn't have to guess.

It is so much more enjoyable to spend time thinking of gifts for ONE person, rather than lots of little things for many family members. We actually have an established rotation, so everyone buys for everyone else on a schedule.

We actually use the spreadsheet for lots of back and forth conversation and chatting, too. Practical and festive.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 5:30 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Our family solution for this is white elephant (which the internet tells me may or may not be the same as Yankee Swap). There are many variations on how to exchange/steal/choose that you can Google.

We set a price limit and there's always a hilarious mixture of gifts. If you don't want to end up with random junk, you could establish a rule of one "good" or quality item bundled with a "bad" or prank-type thing. Or you might choose a category in addition to a price limit, for instance, games, lottery tickets, gift cards only, etc. That could help to improve your swap.
posted by Temeraria at 5:44 PM on November 26, 2017

Can you just have a low stakes family Christmas potluck or afternoon wine and appetizer party? Guests who don't cook can bring wine or prepared foods from Costco or the grocery store. You could get one of those gingerbread house kits for a fun, kid-friendly group activity. Stream the Pandora Christmas station, take photos, enjoy each other's company. No need for gifts, but it's still A Christmas Thing that you're doing together.
posted by little mouth at 6:11 PM on November 26, 2017

I hate to suggest "gift card swap," but that's more of a way to make sure people can get something they want. Much as I like while elephant swaps, it takes the right people to have those go off with fun and some people are just NOT into funny silly gifts.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:16 PM on November 26, 2017

Do a Yankee swap game but choose a category, like hats or socks or ornaments. In our family we usually do a themed Yankee swap for the adults and at Thanksgiving we pick names and the adults buy ornaments for the kids. Teens can pick which group they want to belong to, but not both.
posted by MadMadam at 6:38 PM on November 26, 2017

One side of our family did a Christmas ornament exchange for many years -- each person gets assigned one person, and has to come up with an ornament that's reasonably personal for their recipient. Can be homemade or storebought, whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:56 PM on November 26, 2017

My family has done something where rather than give individually tailored gifts, we went out and bought a bunch of cheap but fun reusable grocery bags and then filled them up with as many fun snacks we could find at our local Asian market. A semi-random variety went into the bags, and they were given to our extended family members with express instructions that people should trade amongst one another for the flavors they like best. It went over extraordinarily well.

Another idea I have heard of, but never actually participated in, was a "Favorite Things" swap. Everybody brings a fixed number of identical sets of their favorite things, nicely packaged, but with clearly labeled contents. At the party, everybody goes and selects a few items from everyone else's offerings. It was described to me as a choose-your-own-gift-basket kind of deal, and it sounded like less work than buying individual presents and less fraught than a white elephant, but I imagine there has to be a very firmly enforced price cap for this to function well.

For example, you might bring bottles of your favorite wine, but your day hiker brother brings amazing wool socks, your great aunt brings plates of her famous homemade cookies and fudge, your salon-loving cousin brings the best nail clippers in the world, your nephew brings his favorite Lego minifigs, whatever. The point is that there's a wide enough variety so everyone can go and pick a few that appeal, leaving their own offerings for someone else to enjoy. You get to discover stuff your loved ones cherish, and you get the satisfaction of knowing you've shared your own personal favorites too.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:09 PM on November 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

I read once about a someone who's extended family would meet up for a weekend vacation (hot springs that year) instead of buying Christmas gifts. They used the money on fun, instead of things and it always stuck in my head. My family doesn't really get together for Christmas anymore (grandparents aren't around, no kids) but it sounded so much less stressful. I think I would have enjoyed it as a kid and later as an adult.
You could make it a one night thing and have everyone put in on a party bus to drive around and see Christmas lights or go see a movie together. Whatever activity you think people would enjoy.
posted by stray thoughts at 11:35 PM on November 26, 2017

I heard an interview with an economist once who was annoyed by the economic inefficiency of gift-giving (because people don’t necessarily get things they want). So he instituted a system where everyone in the family gave each other money, and then each person went away and spent the money on whatever they wanted; but, crucially, they had to wrap the presents they bought themselves, and they all gathered round to watch as the presents were opened. So there was an element of surprise for everyone except the person getting the gift, and the ritual of present opening, but everyone got something they really wanted.

I could never decide whether the idea was brilliant or terrible.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 3:20 AM on November 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

We draw names by generation, kids or grown-ups.

Every person in the "adults" generation buys one other adult a gift. Maximum value may fluctuate, but is usually agreed to be about $50.

The families draw one "child" name for each of their own kids, and then gives a gift to each drawn name. The value is limited to $20 or $25, though as the kids grow up (now ages 9 to 19), their tastes will no longer align with a $20 gift. *shrug* This gets discussed every year.

Everyone is badgered to cough up a detailed list by Thanksgiving; many do, but some don't, and the threat of "handkerchiefs for Christmas" is used with grim seriousness.

The gifts are exchanged on the big family Christmas day brunch, or delivered early to those who won't attend.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:39 AM on November 27, 2017

Ok, I just thought this one up, based on LobsterMitten's tradition that "each person gets assigned one person, and has to come up with an ornament that's reasonably personal for their recipient." How about mixing that with a revers-o Yankee swap? Here's how it could work. Go with LobsterMitten's start, but put all wrapped ornaments in a pile. Decide a pick order. The first person unwraps an ornament, tries to determine who it was meant for, and gives it to them. Then the next person takes a turn. They might think that the one they open is really the one that was meant for someone who's already holding an ornament. In that case, they hand it to that person, and that person tries to determine who was really supposed to get the one they'd been holding first, and gives it to them. And so on. At the end, big reveal of which ornaments were really for whom, and maybe trading.
posted by daisyace at 10:45 AM on November 27, 2017

1. During the Festivus airing of grievances on December 23, pelt eachother with random wrapped items from the dollar store - you grieve about someone, and you may have an orange eyeball left over from target's dollar section pelted at your eyeballs by that person . . The person who gripes the longest and about the most people generally has the most junk at the end. Glass items not allowed!
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:03 AM on November 27, 2017

I've been thinking about this. How about just doing just stocking-level gifts for everyone and secret santa-ing it up? So like everyone gets maybe two people and the rule is "must fit in a stocking." Then everyone is guaranteed to not have a huge pile of crap, and you can also "fill in the blanks" with stuff like snacks for the kids liquor for the adults, LED flashlights and socks and gift cards for everyone. Everyone could pick one general category (so one person gets everyone cool thumb drives or whatever) and two people to get small gifts for. People who have small things they want can make a wishlist that people can refer to. Wrapping is easy. Unwrapping is still a thing you can do. Sticks with the xmas theme. Can also be used with any other tradition like "everyone gets wine"
posted by jessamyn at 12:30 PM on November 27, 2017

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