White Elephant vs Secret Santa – The Ultimate Gift Exchange Game


If you’re deciding between White Elephant vs Secret Santa, we say: do both! Both games are a fun way to get into the holiday spirit and play with family, friends or co-workers. White elephant or secret santa can both be ways to bring people together in the spirit of giving – without getting too attached to what you’ll receive. 

You can play with any budget and adapt the rules to fit your group – whether that’s co-workers, family members, or friends. You can even play online if you’re not ready to gather in person! Read on for our how-to with tips, and gift ideas. 

How To Play White Elephant

White Elephant or yankee swap, or sometimes even called dirty santa, is simple, fun and often hilariously weird. The goal isn’t to get meaningful or valuable gifts. Instead, the goal is to have fun together with unique, weird, or unexpected gifts. 

There’s no need to pick names for this because the gifts are chosen at random. We are going to give you the details of how to play at your next gathering. You can play with your household members only, or expand it to a company holiday party or other gathering. Here’s how to start.  

Everyone needs to have come prepared with a gift. There’s usually a price limit like $25 on White Elephant gifts. Choose something unique, wacky, or unexpected and you’re ready to begin.

First, place all the gifts in the center of the room and vote for one person to start the game (our vote is youngest first!). You could also draw numbers, with the person who draws “1” starting first. 

The first person choose a gift from the pile and opens it.  Once that first person has a gift, each person takes a turn choosing to open a new gift or steal a gift from someone who’s already opened their gift. If someone steals your gift, you can pick a new wrapped gift or steal one for yourself. 

If you want to limit the time the game takes, you can: 

  • Set a limit that each gift can only be stolen 3 times and each person can only be stolen from 3 times. 
  • Or you can set a no-steal back rule where you can’t take back the gift you just had taken from you. 

This continues back and forth until someone unwraps the final gift without stealing and everyone leaves happy (or confused) with their special gift! 

You’ll want to set a cap for the amount spent on the gifts and keep it appropriate if there’s kids involved. While some participants will buy really awesome gifts that you can’t wait to steal from someone – others might opt for quirky weird things that no one wants, but it makes for plenty of laughs. 

Don’t be surprised if there’s a regifted item in there from the previous family Christmas!

Virtual Fun

Even if you can’t get together in person, you can have a White gift exchange with your extended family excluded from White Elephant. Use sites like White Elephant Online to help you host a free virtual White Elephant gift exchange with your loved ones. Choose a gift from any website and upload your choice onto the site. The present will show up like a gift box icon until someone virtually unwraps it. From there you can play the game as usual. After the game ends, you purchase the gift you submitted and send it on its way to the lucky recipient! 

14 White Elephant Gifts Under $30

White Elephant gifts can be funny, practical or unassuming (something tiny wrapped in a huge box). Some people like adding rocks, old books, or other objects to throw off guesses of what the gift is. While you can get a gift that is genuinely weird, make the most of your experience by pick something that anyone can enjoy or get a kick out of. 

If you need some help choosing a gift, take a look at our suggestions for White Elephant or Secret Santa gifts that the whole crew will love!

  1. Handheld garmet steamer 
  2. Self-watering planter box
  3. Waffle bowl maker
  4. Ceramic mug with silicon sleeve
  5. Travel shoe cleaning kit
  6. Trivia game
  7. Hot dog and bun toaster
  8. Mistaken lyrics coaster set
  9. Screen cleaner + tabletop bowling
  10. Fruit infusion water bottle + slushie maker cup
  11. LED baseball cap + a beanie
  12. Solar garden “fireworks” lights
  13. Portable LED lantern
  14. Karaoke machine with microphone

How To Play Secret Santa 

Secret santa vs white elephant doesn’t have to be a choice – you can do both! Playing Secret Santa is tons of fun, especially waiting to find out who’s going to be gifting you and making plans to gift someone else. The rules for Secret Santa haven’t changed much. This year you can play in person with your household loved ones, your co-workers, gym buddies, or a friend group. 

The version below is meant to be played with your household, but you could adjust for any other group. We’ll give you tips later on how to play when you’re practicing social distancing or playing virtually. Let’s get started! 

To start, have each participant write down their Christmas list and share that list with everyone. You could also make an Amazon wishlist. Then write down all participants’ names individually on a piece of paper and toss them into a hat. Each person playing will pick a name out of the hat for their Secret Santa – no peeking! 

Kids love this game and it’s a great way for them to select the perfect gift for someone they love. Secret Santa is simple and loads of fun! 

Tip: Picking a cap dollar amount to be spent might be a good idea. That way nobody feels slighted if they see someone else get a bigger, better or more expensive gift. Keep it an even playing field and everyone will be happy! If you’re playing with co–workers or friends, just set an amount everyone is comfortable with. 

Separate, But Together

Create memories together, virtually! With sites like Elfster, you can invite the whole family near and far to participate in Secret Santa. First, make sure all participants create their gift list and share with everyone playing. Elfster can help you create a list that allows you to upload your gift list from any site. Then, use their secret Santa name generator and names will be discreetly shared directly with each participant.

Once you know your Secret Santa, be sure that everyone sends out the gifts on time so you can open presents together on Zoom or google meet up. 

Whether you choose secret santa vs white elephant, make it fun! Pick a theme, enjoy holiday food, dress up and enjoy lasting memories. 

14 Secret Santa Gifts Under $30

From toddlers to grandma, we’ve compiled a list of gifts that anyone is sure to love. When you purchase White Elephant or Secret Santa gifts, be sure to get a gift receipt in case the recipient wants to trade it in. While that’s not always the tradition, it’s thoughtful to give them options. Here are a few more fantastic White Elephant or Secret Santa gifts under $30:

  1. Janaese green tea set + bath salts
  2. Hand cream trio
  3. Studio ring light + desktop vaccuum
  4. Cold brew coffee maker
  5. Le Crueset mini cocoette
  6. Nightlight and bluetooth speaker
  7. Classic milkshake maker
  8. Portable campfire
  9. Smart plugs
  10.  Minimalist leather wallet + gourmet espresso beans
  11.  Moon lamp
  12.  Fleece blanket with sleeves
  13.  Games!
  14.  3-in-1 Apple product charging station (it’s $34)

Final Thoughts on White Elephant vs Secret Santa 

We know inflation and the economy are the top of many family’s minds this year. Whichever game you end up playing with your loved ones, you can adapt it to your financial situation. Consider doing Secret Santa with homemade gifts, or having a white elephant with a low price limit (like $10). The holidays are a time of giving, and playing white elephant or secret santa is a way to bring joy and fun to your holiday season without hurting your budget! 


How does the white elephant game work?

The White Elephant game is explained above. Basically, you bring one fun, unique gift, and you’ll go home with a gift after playing. But the fun is in the game!

Does the first person in white elephant get to steal?

The first person in White Elephant gets to steal after their gift is stolen – which can happen many times! Whether you call it white elephant vs yankee swap, the first person is in the game and can steal when they’re stolen from.

What’s another name for the white elephant game?

White Elephant is sometimes called dirty santa or yankee swap. Whatever you call it, White Elephant vs yankee swap, its a fun party game!

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