The 7 Rules of Secret Santa You Need to Follow

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It’s that time of year when Christmas is undeniably on its way; plans are under way for the office party, heated discussions are taking place about the merits of Home Alone over Miracle On 34th Street, and Roy Wood is rubbing his hands at the imminent arrival of his annual royalty cheques. But before you get down to the risky business of making a drunken fool out of yourself in front of your bemused colleagues (and, unfortunately, your boss), it’s important to honour that other sacred workplace tradition: the office Secret Santa.

Don’t panic just yet though. Stick to the following rules, and you should just about avoid the pitfalls of this potential etiquette minefield…

1. Make sure everyone actually knows how to do Secret Santa

This might sound obvious, but it’s a pretty logical place to start. Therefore, if you’re unfamiliar with the rules, it essentially goes something like this: You make a list of everyone who wants to participate, and put their names in a hat. Everyone then draws out a name, and it is their responsibility to buy a present for that person. The twist is that the whole thing is anonymous, so you won’t know who bought your gift (but you’ll get the satisfaction of seeing your 'giftee' open yours).

Simple, right? You can even adapt the game to reflect modern office trends; if your team are spread across the country (or even overseas), Elfster offers an online Secret Santa Gift Exchange, where you can invite people via email and have your gift shipped directly from the vendor. Each player can even upload a Secret Santa wish list questionnaire, so that you won’t blow your cover when trying to research your gift!

2. Set a price limit

This is probably the most important part of Secret Santa – setting a budget. The game is supposed to be fun, and Christmas is already an expensive time for most people; therefore it’s not a wise idea to expect people to spend upwards of £50 on a gift. Tune the budget to something small – no more than £10 (or $25) – which is enough to cover a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, or to encourage you to get really creative.

Of course, if you see something that would be ideal for £12, then nobody is going to hold that against you. In most cases though (unless it’s something that is absolutely perfect and everyone would get a kick out of it) going way over budget will make everyone else feel uncomfortable, and isn’t in the spirit of the game. When everyone is on an even footing, it makes things more fun.

3. Know your giftee – and if you don’t, keep it simple

If you know the person you are buying for, then you should try to get something that reflects their personality and their interests – or is relevant to a particular joke that you share. For example, a former colleague of mine attempted to grow a beard that was regularly ridiculed by the rest of the office (in good nature of course); his Secret Santa gift was a small shaving kit.

Even if it is something useless and silly, the idea is to show someone that you know them, and the gift should ideally make them laugh or have some sentimental connection.

Of course, in bigger companies or offices, this will not always be the case. If you draw someone that you don’t know, you can always try to make conversation with them in the hope of gleaning a couple of potential gift leads. While approaching a total stranger in the tea room and asking if they like wine or have any pets might make it a bit obvious (or alternatively cause some mild alarm), it is still a good opportunity to spread your social wings in the workplace – just be slightly more subtle.

If this isn’t possible, or you still can’t come up with a gift idea, then it’s a good idea to keep it simple. A box of chocolates or a funny clock might not set anyone’s world alight, but it won’t offend anyone either.

Which brings us to the next point…

4. Avoid personal gifts

Picture the scene: you’ve drawn Katie, that hot girl from accounts who you’ve had a crush on for months. Should you a) Buy her an ironically funny advent calendar that contains tasty chocolate treats; b) A moderately priced bottle of Rose wine; or c) an exotic two-piece of lacy lingerie and a bottle of Dior perfume?

If you chose C, you’re playing the game wrong. No matter how good Katie would have looked in that negligee, the idea is that the game is supposed to be fun – not put somebody on the spot and make them feel incredibly uncomfortable. Anything that can be considered romantic should usually be avoided for this reason, with the general consensus being that you shouldn’t buy anything that you would get for your partner.

This can apply to other sensitive gifts that could put someone on the spot, such as a religious or cultural gift, while something as innocuous as clothes can also cause friction. The person receiving that nice jumper that you bought them might be wary of others knowing their size, or – even worse – you might have guessed it wrong; in this case, stick to one-size items such as scarves or mittens.

Ultimately, while you should be encouraged to buy something unique and interesting, always be aware that you might be causing offence – just use common sense, and if in doubt, again: keep it simple.

That said…

5. Have a sense of humour

…the game is supposed to be fun, and you want the unwrapping ceremony to be funny. If everybody is receiving a tin of Quality Street or a £10 voucher for Next, then sure, it’s nice – but it would also suggest that there isn’t much morale or team bonding going on in your office.

When choosing a funny gift, keep the joke simple, and ideally one that makes sense to everyone – especially the recipient. The last thing you want to do is offend or confuse someone, so if you’re going for a more risqué approach, judge your work environment and be sure that people will find it funny. If you’re going to get your boss a copy of 'Management for Dummies', then you’d better be sure that they have a sense of humour!

6. Receive your gift graciously

Which ties into this key point. While you may be preoccupied with buying, don’t forget that you will be receiving a gift as well, and that someone may be putting the same thought and effort as you are into choosing something. Therefore, make sure you are polite and dignified when you open your gift – even if you hate it. In fact, especially if you hate it.

Certainly don’t whine or moan about the shoddiness or ill judgement of the gift to your other coworkers afterwards. Aside from the fact that you don’t know who actually bought it (consider that Jane may have been the one who chose your new self-stirring mug before you tell her how “sh*tty” it is), gossip travels fast in the office and your pettiness won’t reflect well on you.

Thank your anonymous buyer and if needs be, take it home and put it straight in the attic. If someone has well-meaningly bought you a case of beers and you don’t drink, smile about it and get rid of them later. Unless it’s something downright provocative, you don’t need to make a scene about it.

7. Don’t be afraid to mix it up

If you’re looking for ways to make things a bit more interesting, don’t be afraid to change it up. You can set a theme that everyone has to adhere to – such as Disney films, jigsaw puzzles or onesies – or you can make it more ambiguous by saying all the presents have to be a certain colour.

You don’t have to spend money either; for example, you could do a Bake-Off Secret Santa where you all make delicious festive treats for each other. Or, as Christmas is the time of giving, you can give donations to charity in each other’s names. Be as creative as you want!

If that’s not enough, you can even change the rules of the game. Try the White Elephant version, where rather than buying for a specific person, everybody buys a generic present. Each participant then draws an order number, and the first person opens a gift. Then the second person goes, with the caveat that they can choose to either keep their own gift or “steal” the one before. The game continues like this until everybody has a gift. Sounds fun, right?

The important thing to remember though is that Secret Santa is not about the gift you receive, but the activity itself. Just like Christmas itself, it is meant to bring people closer together, and foster a team spirit. Stick to the above rules and it will ensure a successful Secret Santa for all!

What’s the best Secret Santa gift you’ve ever given or received? Let us know in the comments below…