The 13 Best Gift Exchange Games to Play at Your Next Holiday Party

published Dec 6, 2023
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Overhead shot of someone handing over a gift wrapped in red, pink and gold abstract paper, to someone grabbing it with two hands.  On the light wood surface theres an assortment of other wrapped gifts and gift bags.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

Swapping presents is one way to take a holiday party to the next level. And if you want to up the ante even more, you can do a holiday gift exchange game that gets everyone involved. Whether you’re branching out from a go-to game you play every year or need multiple ideas for all of your , we’ve got you covered.

Below, learn how to play 13 fun and popular holiday gift exchange games. Plus, we have helpful tips, like how much time you’ll need to set aside to play, what to do if someone forgets to bring a present, and more.

Holiday Gift Exchange Games FAQ

How many people do I need to play these games?

It depends on the game. You’ll definitely want more than three or four people, but cap it at a number that seems reasonable, somewhere between 10 and 15. For example, you don’t want to do an exchange with 35 people — that could take hours.

How much time should I set aside? 

Speaking of time, allow a few minutes per gift, so you can guesstimate based on the number of people participating. But some games may take longer than others. A good starting point is to allow for at least 30 minutes to play, with some flexibility for up to an hour. 

How far ahead should I let people know about the exchange?

Give people at least three to four weeks to shop; earlier is always better, according to Carol Haislip, director of the International School of Protocol. “Many people’s lives are busy and the last thing you want to do is create hardship for someone as they balance a variety of chores,” Haislip says.

How much money should we be spending, really?

“A low dollar number is usually better,” Haislip says. You don’t want to price anyone out of the exchange. “A gift exchange is about making the party fun rather than about what gift you give or receive,” she says.

My friend canceled at the last minute or someone forgot their gift. What do I do?

Haislip suggests you as the host should have a few extra gifts ready to go. Give yourself the same monetary limit everyone else has and buy some like a candle or a mug. 

Okay, this is all fun, but what if someone doesn’t like their gift?

That’s the luck of the draw with gift exchanges! “No one should ever convey any message about a gift other than ‘I love it!’” Haislip says. “Remember that actions speak louder than words, so make sure your facial expression and the words you use about the gift are in sync,” she adds.

If you notice that someone doesn’t like their gift, pull them aside and offer to swap it with your gift or one of the extra gifts. Haislip suggests saving the unwanted gift for another exchange. “It might be helpful to place a note on the gift so you don’t return to the same party the next year with the regifted gift!” she offers.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

The Best Holiday Gift Exchange Games

1. Favorite Things 

This is a great way to get to know your friends a little better. Have everyone bring a gift that’s something they personally cannot live without. Maybe it’s a travel power adapter or a specific type of spoon rest. It could be virtually anything, as long as it’s a favorite thing of the gifter. These gifts should not be wrapped. 

For the exchange, put everyone’s name in a hat. One by one, have your guests hold up their favorite thing and explain what it is and why it’s a favorite. Then, they pull a name out of the hat. That person gets the gift — and a new bit of knowledge about their friend!

2. Fun Facts

This is also a great icebreaker for guests who might not know each other well! As each person arrives, put a number on the gift they bring. On a slip of paper with the corresponding number, have them write a fun fact about themselves. Put all the slips of paper into a hat or a bowl. 

Once it’s time for the exchange, choose someone to draw a slip out of the hat and read what it says. The person who guesses who the fact is about first wins the gift that person brought. You can then pass the facts to the person who won the gift, and they can read the next fun fact. To make sure everyone gets a present, people who win gifts aren’t allowed to guess anymore.

3. Holiday Gift Auction

As the host, you’re the gift auctioneer. Everyone you invite needs to bring two inexpensive gifts: one gag gift and a traditional one. Wrap each present differently so people don’t know what they’re bidding on. As guests arrive, they hand over their gifts and receive a handful of fake money in return — make sure everyone gets the same amount. (Monopoly money works great for this, but you can create and print your own.) 

Once all the gifts are in, start the auction! A great first bid is $1, as it’s the smallest amount of Monopoly money available. Each person can win two gifts in the auction, but they can only use the amount of money in their hands. The auction ends when everyone has “purchased” two gifts.

4. Hot Potato

This is a throwback to your elementary school days. Collect all the wrapped gifts as guests arrive. When it’s time for the game, everyone at the party sits in a circle. Start with one to three gifts given to people in different parts of the circle — the more gifts you start with, the faster the game. Put on some music, and ask everyone to pass the gifts to their right. Once the music stops, everyone holding a gift keeps it. They sit out the next round, and the game resumes this way until all the gifts are gone.

5. Left-Right Game

You’ll have to do three things to prep for this game: First, ask all of your guests to bring a wrapped present. Then, clear the space so everyone can set up in a circle. Finally, come up with a story to tell that has plenty of instances of the words “left” and “right.” (If you don’t have the bandwidth to write your own, the internet has plenty of example stories you can use.) 

Have all the guests sit in the circle with the wrapped gift they brought. Read the story aloud. Every time you say “right,” everyone passes their gift to their right. Every time you say “left,” the gifts go to the left. At the end of the story, everyone opens the gift they’re holding. If people have the gift they came with, you can ad lib another line or two to make sure people get different presents.

6. Ornament Exchange

For this game, set up a tabletop tree, ideally in a low-traffic area. Ask guests to each bring an unwrapped holiday ornament and hang it on the tree as they come in. When all the ornaments are on, guests take turns one by one covering their eyes and reaching for an ornament. Once you take it off the tree, it’s yours to keep. At the end of the game, everyone can try to guess who brought which ornament. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

7. Roll for It

Take a pair of dice and assign directives for each number, two through 12. You can find a template with ideas here. Print out or write all the rules on a card for everyone to see. 

To play, all the guests sit in a circle with the wrapped gifts in the center. The oldest person goes first. They pick a gift and roll the dice. Depending on what they roll, they’ll have to do something with their gift. For example, if they roll a five, you may have assigned that with, “Give your gift to the person on your left.” The player completes the task, and then play continues to their right, with each person rolling the dice and doing what the card says. 

You can choose how to end the game. For example, for big groups, you could let everyone roll the dice three times, but for smaller groups, it might work better to play until all the gifts are unwrapped (a directive on one of the numbers) or when everyone has kept their gift. Once a gift is safe/kept, that person and the present are no longer eligible to participate.

8. Saran Wrap Ball

For this game, you need at least three small gifts per person (think things like pieces of candy, lotto tickets, gift cards, or jewelry), Saran wrap, and a pair of dice. You can either have everyone chip in some money for you as the host to buy the gifts and make the plastic wrap ball ahead of time or have everyone bring three small gifts and make the ball when they arrive. To make it, start with a small ball of Saran wrap and place the gifts randomly as you continue to wrap the cling wrap to create a huge ball. You’ll want to leave a good amount of layers between gifts so people have to work for it.

At a table with all your guests, one person has the ball, and the player to their left gets the dice. The person with the ball begins to unwrap it, and the person with the dice rolls at the same time. The goal is to unwrap and keep as many gifts as possible before someone rolls doubles. Once they roll doubles, the ball and the dice get passed to the left, so the last person who rolls gets to unwrap. Keep going until all the gifts are gone. Tip: Have a few small goodie bags to hand out afterward, in case one of your guests didn’t get anything from the ball.

9. Scrooge Your Neighbor

Scrooge Your Neighbor turns your holiday gift exchange into A Christmas Carol-themed card game. You can find the custom cards here. Everyone brings a wrapped present, and you hand out a card to each player from a deck of custom cards before you play. They say things like “freeze a gift,” “switch your gift,” “peek at a gift,” or “block someone from stealing your gift.” 

Determine the order partiers go in by having guests pick a number from a hat or a bowl. The first person picks a gift from the pile and unwraps it. When the next person goes, they can steal that gift or pick a new one. A gift can only be stolen three times, and each player can use their card during their turn if they choose. The game is over when everyone has a gift.

10. Secret Santa

You’re likely familiar with this one, but it’s a classic game for a reason. Before your party, set a spending limit ($5, $10, $20, etc.) that works for everyone, and have each guest share with you a list of gifts they might like within that range. You can have a pre-party where everyone randomly picks a name. Or, you can use an online Secret Santa generator that’ll do all the work for you and keep it a secret for everyone involved.

Once everyone knows who they’re “Santa” for, they buy a gift leading up to the party and bring it wrapped and addressed to that person, but not signed by the gifter. At the party, hand out all the gifts. As guests open their presents, they can guess who their “Santa” is. You can make a three-guess rule, where if they don’t get it in those tries, the gifter reveals themselves. 

11. Spin the Candy Cane

Don’t worry — there’s no kissing involved in this one. Everyone brings a wrapped gift and sits in a circle with a candy cane in the middle. (The really big peppermint sticks without a hook work best to get a balanced spin.) Each person takes a turn spinning the candy cane. Whoever it points to when it’s done spinning chooses a gift from the pile of presents, unwraps it, and then is out of the circle. When the next person spins the candy cane, the person it lands on can either steal that first present or pick a new one and unwrap it. You play until everyone has a present. 

12. White Elephant

Ah, White Elephant: The bane of every work holiday party’s existence. Trust us — it’s much better when you play with friends. Have everyone bring a wrapped gift to your party, and put all the gifts on a table. Your gift should be something fun and silly, not what you’d find on a wish list. Think of things like a whoopie cushion or a weird magnet.

Everyone draws a number from a bowl or a hat to see what order you’ll play in. The first person takes a gift and unwraps it. The next player can choose to take that gift or take one from the table and unwrap it. A present can only be stolen once per turn. If someone’s present is stolen, they can either steal from another player or open another present from under the tree — but there’s a maximum of three steals per turn. Once everyone has a gift, the game ends when the first person who went either steals any gift they want or keeps the one they have.

13. Cookie Swap

Okay, this isn’t technically a gift exchange, but it’s the sweetest of all holiday party swapping games so we had to include it. Prior to the party, ask every guest to bake two dozen cookies — or at least enough for everyone to get one of each type of cookie. They should also print recipe cards and provide a list of potential allergens. (It’s good to relay any food allergies before the party so guests can try to accommodate those.) 

Once all your guests arrive with their sweet treats, arrange them on a table with the recipe and allergen cards nearby. Everyone can then introduce themselves and share why they chose their specific cookie, and then it’s time for eating. You can either provide cookie tins or have your guests bring a container to put all their new treats in. Have everyone fill up their containers with a

selection of cookies

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