Thinking Out Loud

December 13, 2016

The Christmas Gift Exchange Game


You know this game.

Everyone brings a wrapped gift and places it under the Christmas tree. Everyone gets a number. The first person picks a gift from the tree and unwraps it for all to see. The second person has a choice, they can pick a gift as well, or steal the item the first person has. The person who just lost their gift now picks another gift from the tree. The third person can steal something, from the first or second person, who then can steal something or pick a gift from the tree.

And on it goes.

My wife is not a particular fan of this game. The game is a trigger. Of what, I do not comprehend. Myself, I like Christmas parties to contain two elements, food and conversation. When someone says, “Now we’re going to play a game;” I take off to the spare bedroom for a prolonged conversation with the family cat.

But last night, at the staff party we hosted, of our own volition, we played the game.

But with some differences.

First of all, everybody got four numbers. There were eight of us, so 36 gifts in total.

Second, we (my wife and I) bought all the gifts ourselves.

Third, you couldn’t really tell what anything was by the way it was wrapped.

Fourth, it just so happened that every single gift had exactly the same monetary value.

In case you’re wondering how we did this, the gifts were from Dollar Tree. Each item had a retail value of $1.25 CAD, and everybody knew this.

…and yet…

First, there was just as much emotion over the acquisition of and the loss of various objects as there are in the traditional version of the game where more value is at stake. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Second, the game still played to our sense of personal property. One particular item that someone had held onto for most of the game was stolen at the last minute. It takes only minutes for something to be ours. There’s a lesson there, too.

Third, all the items were practical and usable by the average participant. There wasn’t anyone going home with something that couldn’t be used at some point over the next few months. Normally, when you say giftware, you’re including so many things that no one specifically needs.

Fourth, everyone’s take consisted of more than one item. Their loot wasn’t entirely consisting of one single item which they may have chosen, or simply ended up with by the luck of the draw.

Fifth, there was complete equity in terms of the dollar value of the gifts. No one can seriously complain that anyone got more. (And anyone who feels they missed out on something can go to Dollar Tree and simply buy the thing for pocket change.)

I think we had just as much fun as when we’ve played the game with $25 items. Maybe more. No, definitely more.

One thing I learned doing this was that Dollar Tree carries great merchandise. Several people were surprised that we had obtained the items at such a low price.

One thing I regret is that we didn’t do all this buying for a low-income family. Or even a refugee family.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a version of the game that solves some issues associated with it, may I suggest just buying everything yourself at a dollar store.

Sidebar: To my many UK readers, what do you call the equivalent of “the dollar store” there? Or do you have them?

The rest of the rules:

  • If someone steals your gift, you can steal someone else’s gift or choose and open a wrapped one.
  • Continue until everyone has had a turn for a gift. A turn is ended when an unopened gift has been opened.
  • A gift can only be “stolen” once during a turn. If a gift is taken from someone during one round, she cannot take it back during that same round. She can, however, take it back in a later round if she is in a position to select a gift.
  • Once a gift has had 3 “owners”, the 3rd owner of a gift gets to keep it – it is retired and can’t be stolen again.*
  • The gift exchange ends when the last wrapped gift is chosen and opened.

* We forgot that rule last night; that’s the problem with a game you only play once a year.

This game is also played as the White Elephant Gift Exchange, but in that case people bring gifts “…defined by something of dubious or limited value or an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others. Thus, in its basic form the game calls for people to bring ‘gag’ gifts or gifts they received that they have no use for.” [source] The version we would play at a friend’s annual party started out as gag gifts but morphed into higher quality merchandise. Unfortunately, for a couple of years we didn’t get the memo; we just thought a few people were being extravagant or very generous.

Create a free website or blog at