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Friday, November 12, 2010


How To Play Dirty Santa At Your Next Holiday Gathering

Don't Worry, There's Nothing Adult About It - Your Kids Can Participate Too...

Every year our group of friends and their children get together for a holiday party. Obviously it would be expensive for everyone to buy everyone else at these parties a present, but there are other options. One would be to do the Secret Santa exchanges where people draw names out of a hat, but what if you draw someone's name and have no idea what types of things they like for gifts? Dirty Santa (also known by many other names) has helped us to solve that problem.

We have been playing the Dirty Santa game at our annual Christmas parties for over 5 years. As alcohol is a common favorite at our parties, we restrict the Dirty Santa exchange to adults only and buy individual presents for the kiddies. However, this is easily mitigated so that children and teens can enjoy the festivities of the game by simply asking your guests not to bring alcohol.

Our Dirty Santa Christmas parties are the highlight of our year and I have found more and more people asking to be invited when they hear about how fun they are. We owe most of that to the excitement of the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange.

Feel free to participate individually, as a couple, or as an observer.

  • The game consists of everyone bringing a gift valued between $20 and $25 (or any other value the host sets). At the end of the night, each participant ends up taking a gift home.
  • Gift wrapping should be first class as it helps folks decide which gift to select. If it is a gift best for a man or woman it can be labeled as such, but it is not necessary to label the gifts.
  • What kind of gift works well? Something fun, unique, and in good taste. Last year family games were the big hit.

As an added bonus, we always do a Surprise Ending Gift. This is to motivate participants to bring well thought out gifts; the person who brings along the gift that gets "retired first" gets an additional gift valued up to $25, courtesy of the hosts.

Update: Someone responded to this post with a great idea for motivating participants to bring well thought out gifts and I wanted to share here. The gist of it is having each participant throw a dollar into a "cash pot" at the beginning of the game. The person with the gift that gets retired first wins the cash pot. If no gift is retired, each participant takes back their dollar at the end of the game.

So how do we play the game? Let's assume we have 10 players. Someone writes the numbers 1 through 10 on ten little pieces of paper, places the 10 little pieces of paper into a bowl, and everyone draws a number. Before the game begins, if you and another player agree, you may exchange numbers if you wish. There is no need to keep who has which numbers a secret. In fact, it might help the game move faster if everyone knows who is next in sequence; and, it gives the players a chance to plan their strategies. Whoever is next is usually ready to jump in and start playing the game so it is usually not a problem with folks forgetting their numbers. A hidden advantage of knowing the sequence of the players is it gives those later in the sequence time to make a bathroom stop, get a drink refill or get seconds on desserts.

  • The 10 gifts are put in the center of the room or on a table where everyone can easily pick-up, shake, inspect and select a package.
  • Late arriving game players can add their gift to the pile of gifts when they come in and become number 11 and so on.
  • Player #1 picks a gift and opens it, shows it around, models it, reads it or demos it (depending on what it is of course).
  • The person with slip of paper #2 is next. That person can either select another unopened gift or take the gift #1 had opened.
  • If #2 takes #1's gift, #1 must select another unwrapped gift.
  • Next it is #3's turn. #3 has two choices. #3 could select a new unopened gift, or take an already opened gift (#1's gift or #2's gift).
  • Then, if #3 were to select #2's gift, #2 has two choices. #2 could select another unopened gift or select #1's unwrapped gift. However, a gift cannot bounce back and forth between two players without someone else taking possession of the gift in between. So, #2 cannot select #3's unwrapped gift because it was just previously taken from #2.

So each player (after the first player) has two choices. When it is your turn, you take a new unopened gift from the table or you take someone else's opened gift. When someone takes your gift (let's say an "mp3 player") from you, you cannot immediately turn around and take the "mp3 player" back from the same person who just took it from you. You either select a new unopened gift or take somebody else’s already unwrapped gift. And, let's say you ended up with a "music CD". Later someone takes your "music CD" so now you can go back to the person who previously took your "mp3 player" and take it back. When you take it back this is the second time you have had possession of the "mp3 player".

Sooner or later someone else takes your "mp3 player" away from you again. This time you take someone else's gift, a bottle of rare Scotch. Then yet another person takes your bottle of rare Scotch from you and now you can go back and get your "Mp3 player" again. By this time, since the "mp3 player" was taken from you last, it might have been "owned" by several other players and in some cases more than once. Now this is the third time you have owned the "mp3 player" and this time it is yours to keep. The "mp3 player" is retired and you are now out of the game. The BIG confusion for some folks seems to be the third time the "mp3 player" is exchanged that the third owner gets to keep them. Not so. The gift is retired after the third time a single participant gets the same gift back into their possession. Using the 10 player game in this example, each player could take temporary possession of the "mp3 player" twice for a total of 20 exchanges. However, if you played by the 3rd owner rule you would only have 3 exchanges. The third time-same owner rule allows more players to have a chance at the "mp3 player". This also has a hidden purpose in forcing everyone to keep track of who has had possession of what gifts and how many times. This makes for more active involvement rather than passive involvement and is one of the keys to the games popularity.

So when does the game end? Using the 10 player game in our example, when it gets down to player #10 there will be one wrapped gift left in the center of the room or on the table. Player #10 has the same two choices that everyone else did (except for player #1). Player #10 can take the last unopened gift on the table, show it around, model it, read it or demo it etc. Or, player #10 can take another participants unwrapped gift (except retired gifts).

  • If the gift is a food or drink, it absolutely should not be unpackaged until the game is over and it has been exchanged for the last time.
  • All gifts must stay in the room and all gifts must remain in sight for all players to view until the game ends in order to help each participant determine how they will play their turn out. It goes without saying that retired gifts are the exception to this rule.
  • Each participant needs to keep it uppermost in their mind that, no matter what gift it is they may be holding at the moment, it isn't their gift unless it has been "retired", or until the last gift has been exchanged.

I have heard from other people who host Dirty Santa parties that some folks complain about the first player only having one choice. If the gift that the first player opens is a dud (meaning nobody else wants it), the first player is out of the game before the fun really gets started. But what folks don't seem to realize is that this can happen to any player who opens a wrapped gift and finds that it is a dud. That player is also out of the game as to possible further participation.

As a result of this pity for the first player, a whole bunch of special rules (swaps at the end of the game, extra gifts added to the pile at the start or end of the game) have been suggested. This gets too complicated, involved and has its own set of problems, misunderstandings, hard feelings and surprises.

The first person has the pick of the litter of all the gifts. No other player has this advantage. In all the times we have played Dirty Santa at our annual holiday party we have never had the first player feel cheated. Any player could select a dud gift whether they are the first or last player. This is the reason the gifts should be well thought out. They need to have broad appeal to most people and be something worth stealing.