Secret Santa vs. White Elephant Gift Exchanges

festive presents
Add festive fun to your holidays with a gift exchange. | Image courtesy Pexels

Secret Santa and White Elephant gift exchanges are fun and affordable ways to spread holiday cheer with friends, family, and co-workers, especially using an online Secret Santa Generator. But what’s the difference between the two types of gift exchanges, is one better than the other for certain groups in your life, and how do you get started?

In a Nutshell

Secret Santa is a beloved Christmas tradition. Members of a group of friends, family, or coworkers draw random names to become someone’s Secret Santa. Often each person makes a wish list of gifts they might like to receive, making shopping a bit easier for their Secret Santa. During the gift exchange, each person takes a turn opening their gift and then tries to guess their Secret Santa.

wrapped present
Spread some holiday cheer! | Image courtesy Unsplash user rawpixel

White Elephant is a bit different, because you don’t know who will end up with the gift you buy. The name comes from tales of the King of Siam, who supposedly gave white elephants to his enemies. Legend has it that these beasts, although beautiful, were not very useful—and the upkeep was astronomical. White Elephants today are obviously not meant to be vindictive. The gifts are usually whimsical, comical, or outrageous. Each guest buys a gift that must be within a certain budget—and often within a theme—and brings it wrapped (and anonymous) to the gift exchange, where party-goers will take turns choosing a gift, unwrapping it, and then either keeping or swapping the gift they’ve unwrapped.

How to Host a Secret Santa Gift Exchange

Invite friends to a Secret Santa party… | Image courtesy Etsy seller Enchanted Designs 4U

To host a traditional Secret Santa game in person:

  1. Write down each name on a piece of paper. If it’s hard to get everyone in the same room at the start, the host can handle this solo.
  2. Have everyone write down a gift suggestion or two. The more specific the better, to ensure everyone gets something they actually want.
  3. Draw names to randomly assign a Secret Santa to each player. If your group is not together for this part, the host can email, call, or text the other players their assigned name.
  4. Plan a gift exchange party. Pick a day when everyone can get together, preferably early in the holiday season and people’s schedules are packed. Make sure each gift is tagged with the recipient’s name, but not the giver’s. Exchange gifts, having each player open their gift in turn.
  5. Guess who drew your name. Let the whole group guess, too. It’s half the fun!

Today, modern Secret Santa exchanges are often done online with a service.

Having an online service manage your Secret Santa makes life easier for larger groups, like office co-workers, and allows you to host Secret Santa exchanges for far-flung groups, like college friends who live in all four corners of the world or extended family from the East Coast to the West. Here’s how it works:

  1. Invite the other players. Set up an online Secret Santa gift exchange, then email an invitation to everyone in your group who might want to get their elf on.
  2. Randomize the name selection. Digital Secret Santa name generation tools randomly send out assignments and wish lists, keeping track of a master list of paired up participants for the host.
  3. Create comprehensive wish lists. Participants can create a wish list using gifts or gifting inspirations from any major outlet, including Amazon, Etsy, Target, and more! Be sure to set a spending limit. You can also send out a Secret Santa Questionnaire so givers don’t accidentally blow their cover trying to find out what their recipient would like.
  4. Exchange gifts. Wrap your gifts and send them. Make it even easier by selecting items from their digital wish list and have the gifts shipped directly, so all you have to do is set a delivery date.
  5. Host a global party. Set up a video chat party to open your gifts and let the group guess each person’s Secret Santa.

How to Host a White Elephant Party

white elephant party
… or a White Elephant Party. | Image courtesy Tiny Confetti

To host a White Elephant game in person:

  1. Send festive invites detailing the particulars of the party.
  2. Bring a wrapped, anonymous gift to the shindig.
  3. Draw numbers to determine the order in which you’ll unwrap gifts.
  4. The person who drew #1 selects a gift from the pile, opens it, and holds it up for all to see.
  5. The person who drew #2 decides whether to steal that gift or unwrap a mystery present from the pile.
  6. The game continues in such a fashion, with each person getting the chance to steal someone’s gift or unwrap their own surprise.
  7. When there are no more unwrapped gifts, the person who drew #1 gets one last turn. If they decide not to steal a gift, keeping the one they have, the game is over. If they do steal a gift, the game continues until someone decides to keep their gift, rather than steal.

Is one better than the other?

Which type of gift exchange is best for me?

holiday party couple
Keep your exchange light-hearted & fun! | Image courtesy Pixabay

Both Secret Santa and White Elephant exchanges are meant to be light-hearted and fun—and not about the monetary value of the gift.  Here’s what Greg Jenkins, an LA-based event planner and partner at Bravo Productions (, says are the pros and cons of each:

Pros of the Secret Santa Exchange:
The nature of the surprise—both the person who has your name and the
gift you receive creates a sense of excitement and intrigue. Secret Santa
gift exchanges can work well both in the workplace and for most social
gatherings. The Secret Santa gift may also provide an opportunity where a person doesn’t have to buy every family member or colleagues a gift. This creates a more economical situation for everyone involved and greatly reduces stress to buy so many gifts around the holidays.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This can be true for Secret Santa exchanges, especially if you don’t have players include a wish list or fill out a questionnaire. What the Secret Santa believes is an awesome gift might be one the recipient immediately donates to their local second-hand store.

Set a budget and encourage everyone to stay within those parameters. The idea is to have fun shopping for one person without breaking your bank. Be sure to have participants give a short wish list so their Secret Santa knows a bit more about their taste and interests. If hosting the Secret Santa gift exchange at the workplace, HR and management should set rules.  For example, anything sexual, political and religious in nature should be discouraged.

Pros of the White Elephant:
The game is typically conducted more for entertainment, rather than an emphasis on the gift.  The gifts can be usable, however, quite often gifts are silly in nature and the cost is nominal. This exchange works well as a gathering with friends, who share a sense of humor and or if you want to use it as an icebreaker.

Some guests may feel they’ve wasted money on useless and frivolous gifts. In addition, there can be a lot of awkwardness with this type of gift exchange. A player whose gift was less popular and was swapped over and over might have hurt feelings. And if a player opens a gift they’d like to keep, they might not be so happy if it’s snatched away. Lastly, White Elephant exchanges have to be hosted in person—so if you like the idea of an online component to include friends and family far away, you’re better off with Secret Santa.

Set a budget and have everyone stick to it.  The gifts should not be more
than $20 in value, especially if you’re setting a whimsical theme. In addition, gauge your party guests before actually executing this exchange. Pick a theme that resonates with your group or encourage your guests to bring usable items.

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