Dirty Santa Rules And Gameplay

The Dirty Santa Gift Exchange is one Christmas game that is sure to be loud and full of action. If your group tends to be on the quieter side, you may want to choose another gift exchange game. Dirty Santa requires that all participants be in the same place at the same time, so it works best at a large family gathering, an office party where everyone is fairly comfortable with one another, a team or community group setting where everyone isn't afraid to challenge each other for the gift they want. As we said earlier, the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange is about everyone arriving with a quality gift, disguising it as something more valuable than it is and going home with the gift they wanted most.

Getting Started

The first thing you do is choose a date, place and time. Depending on the number of people who will be participating, your gathering space should have enough room for people to move around. You will all start seated in a circle around the pile of presents, but players will be getting up to grab (or steal!) someone else's gift, so there should be room to move. Depending on the number of players, this game will last about an hour for a group of about 20 people, a fun thing to do in the middle of a large family gathering, a seasonal teammate or community group festivity, or between colleagues on one of the last days of work before Christmas.

Decide whether you are leading this alone or whether you would like the help of a co-leader. Sometimes it is easier to share the lead with someone else. There is not a lot of management to this game aside from gathering participant names ahead of time and getting it set up on the day of the party, so The Dirty Santa Gift Exchange is one Christmas game that is quite easy to set up by yourself.

Number of Players: Twenty players seems to be the optimal number for The Dirty Santa Gift Exchange to be the most fun. We would suggest no fewer than 6 players participate, and with 6 players, this game will be very short. With 20 players, this gift exchange will last about an hour. Any more players than that, and the gift exchange can go on too long and lose some of its fun element.

The Gift is Full of Trickery and Fun!: We have written about The Trickster in mythology and fairy tales, and at the core of The Dirty Santa Gift Exchange is all of the characteristics of a Christmas Trickster. Participants must be prepared to purchase a gift that has value for any number of people in the group. They must be willing to wrap this gift in a way that disguises what it actually is, maybe even lead the group to think it is something that it is not.

Players will also write a riddle or a poem to use as their gift tag on the present, alluding to what it might be, or especially, what it might not be. And lastly, players will have to be willing to swap or steal the gift they most want, within the confines of the rules of course!

Gifts: The Dirty Santa Gift Exchange works best when a theme is given by the organizer as well as a price range. Most gift exchange groups tend to set the price range for gifts at between $20 and $30, but also take into account the cost of wrapping, which we hope is quite extensive if you're choosing this game. Take into account too, the economics of your group, what you think they can afford, and choose a corresponding theme that will help them choose gifts of value, no matter the price range you set.

How to Begin: As your guests arrive with their wrapped gift, place all the gifts in the center of the circle where you will all sit to begin. Give each guest a number that you've written on a piece of paper. This determines the order of how the game will proceed. If the gift exchange is starting after a little while, you may want to make a list of which number you've given to whom, in case they forget or lose their piece of paper.

Gather all your guests in a circle around the present pile. Player #1 begins. They choose a gift from the pile, read the riddle or poem on the tag, shake, squeeze or sniff the gift and try to guess what it is and who it is from. They then unwrap the gift. Player #2 is next. They can choose to a) steal Player #1s gift or b) choose a new gift and proceed as above. If Player #2 has stolen Player #1s gift, Player #1 gets to choose a new gift from the wrapped pile and proceed again as above. Player #1 cannot steal Player #2's gift back - no one is allowed, throughout the whole game, to steal the gift from the player who has stolen it from them, it must belong to someone else.

Player #3 goes next, and as above, can steal either an unwrapped gift from Player #1 or #2, or choose a wrapped gift. If Player #3 chooses a new gift from the pile, he or she proceeds as above and once opened, Player #1 or #2 can steal it and swap it for their gift! When this stealing and swapping is finished, Player #4 begins. And so on until all gifts are unwrapped and everyone has a gift.

Secondary Rules

  • Most versions of this game limit a gift to being stolen 3 times, and once this happens, the holder of this gift and the gift itself is "retired", meaning this guest is no longer playing and their gift is no longer 'in play'.
  • Player #1 sometimes feels that they didn't have enough opportunity to steal. If this is the case, some games allow Player #1 to steal again last, once all the presents have been opened.
  • One trickster twist that works very well is that the host/ess buys a gift of the same value as everything else and holds it aside, not at play in the game. This gift is rewarded to whomever the group decides has brought the best gift, judged in any number ways: number of steals, most creative, whoever put the most thought into their gift, wrapping and tag. Use this extra gift as a group incentive to encourage your guests to do the best that they can with the gift they are purchasing for the exchange.
  • Some groups use a timer at the end of the game, one final steal for everyone. A 3-minute limit is best. Player #1 goes first. Whoever they steal from goes next. If Player #1 does not want to steal a gift, Player #2 goes first. The time limit really works at this closing stage of the game.