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Dirty Santa Game Print
Thursday, 08 December 2005
This is the ever popular gift exchange game that people around the world have been playing for years around Christmas time.  The following article detailing game instructions comes from the House of Hanson website (http://www.houseofhanson.com/game.html).

The Game


This web page was last updated

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Some background:  We have been playing a game at Christmas parties, annual functions, and other events with large groups of people. It is something we really enjoy and have gotten pretty good at skill wise. We shop a year in advance for the gifts that are exchanged in this game to help make it more fun. A few years ago we played the game and the rules were not followed the way we are going to suggest, and the game was a disappointment. Also, many folks can't seem to remember the rules and want to change them in the heat of the game. We had never seen the rules in print. So we decided to put them here in the hope that others will discover the game and hopefully enjoy it as much as we do. And, that the "rules" will be here before we go to our next party so we can't be accused of changing the rules or making them up as we go along. <G>

We have played this game with as few as 6 people and as many as 50. It doesn't seem to really matter how many except it takes longer with more people obviously. How long also depends on the gifts your party guests bring and how much they are into playing the game. If you get really good at playing this game and explaining it to the new folks you could find yourself being invited to even more games as the one who introduces the game and explains the rules to everyone else.

The game consists of everyone bringing a gift (some hosts set up a dollar amount that the gifts should not exceed) and everyone ends up at the end of the night taking a gift home. What kind of gift works well?  Something fun, different yet unique, and not embarrassing (in good taste).  It isn't a matter of money usually that makes a particular gift a hit. The importance of the selection of gift each player brings to the game cannot be stressed enough. This is the key to the game in our opinion. For example, I remember the year I brought a pair of Mallard Duck Slippers as a gift for the game. I found them NEW and highly discounted for two dollars. But, I had a hunch they might be a hit at the game. They were exchanged and owned by practically everyone until they were finally retired. Some gifts you might not want, but if others want the item you can use the item to help you get what you do want. Another gift I brought one year I found at Barnes and Noble seven months earlier. It was a book titled Soiled Doves by Anne Seagraves.  A historical text about prostitutes of the Old West. Paperback - 175 pages (February 1994) Wesanne Pubns; ISBN: 096190884X ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.56 x 9.04 x 6.05  It was fun because the one who took it home (finally) was a Grandmotherly type woman. Try to keep the cost about $10 to $15; or, whatever the hosts have set as the dollar limit for gifts. Shopping in advance all year long can help cut the cost if you play the game with large families groups and you, as parents, are responsible for providing gifts for your family members to play the game.

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. If everyone brings a well thought out gift the game can become a really memorable evening. Couples learn to work as a team.  I have seen singles, who have never met before the game started, team up to help each other get what gift they each wanted (AND, this is done without even talking to each other directly).
Let's get started. 

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, puts the 10 little pieces of paper into a bowl, and everyone draws a number. You can exchange numbers with another player if you wish. There appears to be no real advantage to being first nor last. 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. <g>

The 10 gifts are put in the center of the room or on a table where everyone can get to easily to pick-up, shake, inspect and select. (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. #1 shows it around, models it, reads it or demos it depending on what it is of course. (You can use the Extra Gift Start optional play for player #1 if you wish, see the last 3 paragraphs on this page if you are reading this printed out on paper or click on Extra Gift Start .)  Food and drink gifts are generally left sealed after unwrapping. The person with slip of paper #2 is next. That person can select another unopened gift (and open it, show it around, model it, read it or demo it) 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, #2 cannot select #3's unwrapped gift because it was just taken from #2 during that same "round or turn" (for the lack of a better term). Bonny Herndon said it best:  

Oh, one last thought.  I think every participant in the game 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 until the fat lady sings, so to speak.

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 that you already know what it is. When someone takes your gift (let's say the "Mallard Duck Slippers") from you, you CANNOT take the "Mallard Duck Slippers" back from the same person who just took them from you during that same turn. You either select a new unopened gift or take a third party's already opened gift. And, let's say you ended up with a "music CD". Later in the game someone takes your "music CD" so NOW you can go back to the person who previously took your "Mallard Duck Slippers" and take them back. When you take them back this is the second time you have had possession of the "Mallard Duck Slippers".

Sooner or later someone else takes your "Mallard Duck Slippers" 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 "Mallard Duck Slippers" again. By this time, since the "Mallard Duck Slippers" were taken from you last, they might have been "owned" by several other players and in some cases more than once. Now this is the third time you have owned your "Mallard Duck Slippers" and this time they are yours to keep. The "Mallard Duck Slippers" are retired and you are now out of the game. The BIG confusion for some folks seems to be the third time the "Mallard Duck Slippers" are exchanged that the third owner gets to keep them. Not so. The third time you get the same gift back into YOUR possession the gift is retired. Using the 10 player game in our example, each player could take temporary possession of the "Mallard Duck Slippers" twice for a total of 20 exchanges. But, 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 "Mallard Duck Slippers". 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. Make sure everyone at the start of the game understands the difference between the third time-same owner rule vs. the third time rule. We guarantee <G> the third time-same owner rule will be challenged the first time a gift is exchanged for the third time.

The fun begins when folks begin to work as teams to get what they want. Let's say Jackie knows I want those "Mallard Duck Slippers". And, someone just took them away from me for the second time. And, I just ended up with a store bought fruit cake so there isn't much chance of my getting another chance at the slippers unless I can get someone to take my fruit cake. Several turns later it is Jackie's turn because someone just took her gift from her.  If she takes the "Mallard Duck Slippers" (with the intention to give them to me later because she saw that I wanted them) from the person who owns them now, someone else will just turn around and take them away from her. So she does the following. Jackie takes the fruit cake from me which allows me to take the "Mallard Duck Slippers" from the current owner...........only this time, this is my third time of owning the slippers, I get to keep them, the slippers are retired, and I get what I wanted (thanks to Jackie).

As each person has their turn you will find those with the fruit cakes waving them wildly in the air in the hopes you will select their "prize" so they can play again and get a better gift. And, the folks with the bottle of rare Scotch hide the bottle under the armrest of the chair in the hopes that folks will forget about it and they will get to take their "prize" home. We have heard of one person actually taking their gift out to their car before the game was even over (this is a no-no of course).  So before the game starts it is usually necessary to remind everyone that all gifts must stay in the room and all gifts must remain in sight for all players to view in order to help them each determine how they will play their turn out. It goes without saying that retired gifts are the exception to this rule.

It is really a hoot when someone opens a fruit cake and everyone immediately recognizes it from last year's game; or someone brings a bottle of rare Scotch, that had been given to them and they don't drink Scotch, so the bottle makes a perfect gift for the game.

So when does the game end? Using the 10 player game in our example, when it gets down to the last player (the person who drew the number 10 on a piece of paper in the drawing at the beginning) 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 Player #1). Player #10 can take the last unopened gift on the table, show it around, model it, read it or demo it etc. and the game is over. OR, player #10 can take someone's unwrapped gift (except retired gifts) and that starts a final round of stealing ................. ending when one of the players who has their unwrapped gift taken from them decides to open the last wrapped gift on the table thus ending the game.

In conclusion, I'm sure this game has a name, but we have never heard it called anything other than "The Game". If you know anything about the origin of the game or have a name for the game (and possibly the origin of the name) or have any strategies for the game or other rules that might work even better we would appreciate hearing from you. You can email us below or from any web page on our web site. We hope you enjoy playing the game. We would appreciate hearing about your experiences. We have email links to both of us at the bottom of this page.

Jeff and Jackie

New Rule suggestion as of December 2003

And, now a word to those hosting the game or those in charge of the game, should the game be played at work or at a social event. YOU have the responsibility for the success of the game more than anyone else. And, as we have repeatedly spelled out above, the quality of the gifts folks bring to the game has a tremendous effect on the success of the game. We were pleased to hear from Daren via email expressing the same sentiment as ourselves. Only Daren has come up with an idea to do something about it. Daren has added a modification to the game that has the potential to help improve the gifts folks bring. I say potential, because folks will have to be informed of your new addendum to the game rules in advance of their selecting their gifts in order to take full advantage of Daren's idea. Here it is ............. It is called the Surprise Ending Gift:

-----Original Message-----
From: Daren Tran
Sent: Monday, December 01, 2003
Subject: Suggestion for "The Game"

Hi Jackie/Jeff,

Thank you for the rules to the game.  This is a game me and my friends enjoy each year.  I just wanted to note that I find people participating in the game tended to bring gifts that were more "thought out" and "selected" after adding the following rule to the game.  (Of course, the host or designated person in charge of the game is responsible for the additional gift to be known as the Surprise Ending Gift.)

Surprise Ending Gift And as an added bonus, and to motivate people to bring well thought out gifts: - the person who brings along the gift that gets "retired first", gets an additional gift valued at the same price as the game permits."


Most of you know "The Game" by a different name. Here is a list of other names for "The Game". If you know "The Game" by a name that is not listed below, please take a moment and email us with the name you use and any information you might have on its origin. 

1.  "The Game"
2.  Dirty Santa
3.  Chinese Exchange
4.  Yankee Exchange
5.  Yankee Swap
6.  The Present Game
7.  The White Elephant Exchange
8.  Stealing Santa
9.  Chinese Christmas
10. Rob Your Neighbor
11. Dirty Christmas 
12. Screw Your Buddy
13. Cajun Christmas
14. Backward Auction
15. Chinese Auction
16. California Swap
17. Steal-A-Thon

We realize that some of these names for the game are not politically correct, nor accurate representations of the spirit of the game, nor necessarily in good taste. We have them here because folks usually find this web page via search engines after typing in the name of the game as they know it to be. If you are offended by these names simply call it something you ARE comfortable with. As for us we like the name "The Game".

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Click
Sent: Saturday, December 23, 2000
Subject: Thank You!

Thank you so much for posting the rules to Dirty Santa. Our extended family (of 40+) gets together every year on Christmas day afternoon to play this game and it's inevitable that an argument always breaks out as to the rules of play. Since it's at my house this year, I have issued a mass-mailing to the family linking to your page of rules. Here's a snippet...

Just so there's no confusion or arguing, these are the rules which will be observed during this year's "Dirty Santa" session on Christmas. Any issues that arise during play not addressed herein will be ruled upon by yours truly with the swift hand of decisive justice only rivaled by that of God himself.    http://www.houseofhanson.com/game.html     Jeff Click

-----Original Message-----
From: Myrna Wells
Sent: Wednesday, January 17, 2001
To: Jackie and Jeff
Subject: Re: The Game


Thought you might want to know how our Dirty Santa came out this Christmas. First of all, each member of the family, including youngest member (13), brought a gift costing $25, and also a "fun" gift costing $5. We drew numbers and played by the basic rules. For the regular gifts ($25) we started with #1. Then for the "fun" gifts we reversed and started with the highest number. We felt like it was a little more fair that way. We put red bows on the regular gifts and green bows on the fun packages.

My family is growing, and the youngest in our families at present is 13, so for the past two years my daughters and I have been discussing how we could celebrate Christmas in a different way without spending several hundred dollars on gifts most of us already had or didn't want. We decided this would be a way to get a couple of gifts and have a lot of fun doing it. (Of course, we all gave my 13 years old grandson "a little something extra" after it was over.)

My two daughters and I also had "treat" bags for everyone: I had apples from a crate of apples we had bought, one daughter had freebies from her work, the other had samples of items she had collected during the year. And you talked about the duck house shoes.....well....for one of the fun gifts, my 25 year old single grandson bought 2 cans of chili and box of Gasex for his fun gift. I can't tell you how many times that was passed around....It was the most popular fun gift there.

We had so much fun and no one was disappointed. It really seemed like everyone was more excited about playing Dirty Santa than they use to be opening their regular presents. So next year we decided to do it again and if we didn't want what we got this year it could be saved until next year and used again. And this year we will have a better idea of what to expect that would make good presents so..... we can spend all year coming up with our gifts.

I can definitely say...WE HAD GREAT FUN, AND IT WAS ENJOYED BY ALL. The smiles on our faces in the pictures we took reflect how much fun we all had.

Happy New Year!

Myrna Wells

Fort Smith, AR

-----Original Message----- 
From: Bonny Herndon  
Sent: Monday, December 17, 2001 09:43
Subject: Christmas Game

Thanks so much for your website!  We call it "Chinese Christmas" and I have no idea where the game originated, but we introduced it to our large extended family last year.  Everyone loved it and howled with laughter throughout the game.  We really didn't set any rules last year ... and this year it caused some controversy.  Some things we really thought people would just use their common sense about, but, alas, we are going to spell it all out for next year.  I would suggest the following rules be added and adhered to:

  • 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 within the perimeters of the game area until the game ends.
  • Unless the game is being played with a small group of adults who know each other very well, sexually explicit material should not be brought to the game.
We have a large group of about 55 - 60 people and we include the little children with the adults.  It is really wonderful to see how the adults all make sure that the children receive a good kid gift, even when it means accepting something they didn't necessary want (the fruit cake).  And it means a lot to the kids that they get to play a game with all the adults.  Also, we had several items that were so popular, they got exchanged over and over and over....  Twice, a stalemate had to be called because 3 people would start passing the same 3 gifts (unplanned, just happened).  If we would have had your 3 possession limit, this wouldn't have happened.  I have heard the 3 limit, but heard it the other way, where the third time it is stolen, that was the final time.  I think either way would be fine, as long as it is understood clearly by everyone to begin with. 

Thanks again,
Bonny Herndon
Uvalde, Texas

Kathy wrote us in December 2002 with an interesting version of the game: 

We use something similar to this game in our Quilter's Guild. We have an ugly fabric contest and use the "Chinese Exchange" to determine which fabric is the "winner" - the last one in the center of the room.  Everyone brings a piece of "ugly" fabric and all pieces are placed in the center of the room or on tables placed around the center.  A name is drawn to see who goes first (drawer) That person selects a fabric from the ones in the center.  Then we proceed clockwise around the room.  Each person can select a new fabric or "steal" one from the earlier "drawers" If a fabric is stolen, that person can only select from the new fabric or someone to their right.  For instance, if we are on "drawer" #10 and they steal the fabric of "drawer" #5, "drawer" #5 can only steal from "drawers" #1 - 4. They can't steal from "drawers" #6-9 because they are sitting to the left of them. There is a maximum of 3 steals per draw - they must then pick from the middle. Fabric must remain on the table in front of the people - no hiding favorites.

Of course, we don't require that anyone complete anything with the ugly fabric.  Sometimes the same fabrics come back year after year. 

We wrote Kathy back and she responded with the following additional information: 

Our meetings only last two hours and the exchange usually lasts about an hour.  With 30-35 people in attendance, it does have to move along fairly quickly. That's why we only allow 3 steals per draw. With a smaller group, I could see the use of strategies would really liven up the party.  Something that I may not have explained clearly - everyone does go home with the piece of fabric that is in their possession at the end of the game. Usually we have a prize for the one that ends up with the "ugliest" fabric - this year it was a nice basket with sewing items. I have played this game with a smaller group where you could steal from anyone. We didn't use the retirement rule but I did manage to steal the item that my husband wanted (he owned it 2-3 times) and he ended up stealing something for me that I really wanted.

First Person's Alternate Ending Option
There has to be a better name for this!

We started receiving email in December 2002 suggesting the following rule change:

Player #1 has a disadvantage at the start of the game, and will be able to exchange gifts with anyone at the end (except retired gifts and ONLY if his/her gift wasn't taken from him/her during the game) and this concludes the game….  
[Thank you Deneen for the wording of the rule]

It is the opinion of some that the first player in the game has a disadvantage in that the first player has only one course of action, namely to open a wrapped gift. And, should that gift never be taken by another player in the course of the game then the player who goes first is "short changed" because there is no opportunity to improve ones gift. This suggested rule change would "kick-in" at the very end of the game as we currently play it with current rules. If the first player still has his/her original opened gift AND no one has taken it during the entire game, then player #1 has the option of taking any gift (except retired gifts) from another player and that other player will end up with the first player's gift.

Let me say up front that if you like this rule change feel free to use it. It does tend to equilibrate player #1's situation with everyone else. But, you are going to have to make sure this rule is agreed upon at the start of the game. AND, all players are going to have to make sure player #1 remembers to exercise this option or stays with his/her original gift. 

The flip side of this suggested rule change (in favor of keeping the original rules) is worth discussing. The first player of the game has the "luxury" of having the pick of the litter of all the gifts in the center of the room or on the table. For veteran game players, who might draw #1 and feel that #1 is an undesirable position, they can usually find another player to exchange numbers with because other veteran players of the game might want the first pick of all the gifts or in some cases folks might want or need to go home early especially if the number of players in the game is large. Vicki and Carson from Tennessee wrote us and recently played the game with 22 players and it took them 90 minutes or just over 4 minutes per player.

Even if the rule change is explained at the beginning of the game, when it comes time to institute the rule at the very end of the game you will find it very disruptive. Every player has seen player #1's unwrapped gift during the entire game and had the opportunity to take #1's gift and NOW someone is going to have that gift rammed down their throat. This does not sit well, believe me. Don't believe me? Try this. How would you like to play the game actively all the way to the very end and then be given #1's unwrapped gift through no skill, talent or luck, but only because it's the rule? At least player #1 has the choice in the wrapped gift they open at the start of the game and to that extend player #1 has control of the situation. Under the proposed rule whoever ends up with player #1's unwrapped gift is a "victim" and has no control over the outcome of the gift they will take home at the end of the game. 

Lastly, the suggested rule does not flow with the natural rhythm of the game as we currently play it in our opinion. The current game rules are so simple, clean and elegant that throughout the entire game every "play" (after player #1's pick of the litter play) consist of opening an wrapped gift or stealing someone else's. The First Player's Alternate Ending Rule is like a patch for a perceived problem or an attempt at fairness in an unfair world. It reminds me of the Internal Revenue Code's attempt at fairness and equality.

However, having said all this PLEASE try playing the game with the new optional ending rule and let us know what you think? This is what counts. It's your game and you deserve to play it YOUR way. In addition, if you have another, undoubtedly better name for the First Person's Alternate Ending Rule please email us with your suggestions. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing from everyone as to how the optional ending rule worked for you in your games.

Season's Greetings,

Jeff and Jackie

Extra Gift Start

December 2004, we just received an email from Denise that alleviates any perceived disadvantage player #1 might have. Denise's group plays the game by asking someone to bring an extra UNWRAPPED gift to the game. This gift is placed along with all the gift wrapped gifts at the start of the game. This gives player #1 the opportunity to select an unwrapped gift or a gift wrapped gift, just like everyone else who plays the game. Using Denise's extra unwrapped gift concept there will be one gift left over at the end of the game. If player #1 does not select the unwrapped extra gift, the gift stays with the wrapped gifts and is treated like any other unwrapped gift for the rest of the game. In other words, when it is someone's turn, they can select anyone's un-retired unwrapped gift or select any gift wrapped gift.

If this extra unwrapped gift, at the START of the game, is not a very desirable gift; it could end up being the left over gift at the END of the game. Otherwise, the left over gift at the end of the game will be a wrapped gift. Whether the left over gift is wrapped or not; it can be given to the host or hostess, or it can go to the person who brought the extra unwrapped gift at the start of the game. 

We think this is a much more desirable way to play the game than using the First Person's Alternate Ending Rule. We really appreciate hearing from Denise with this great solution.

If you have comments or suggestions, email us at:


Return to the main page of our web site.

This web site was last updated

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Changes: added Steal-A-Thon (thanks Maria)
added Extra Gift Start (thanks Denise)
added California Swap (thanks Carol)
added Chinese Auction (thanks Anita)
added Backward Auction (thanks Pat)
added Cajun Christmas (thanks Margaret)
added Surprise Ending Gift (thanks Daren)
added First Person's Alternate Ending Rule (thanks Vicki, Carson, Deneen)
added Ugliest fabric version of Chinese Exchange (thanks Kathy)
added #12 (thanks Jonathan)
added #11 (thanks J. Lawrence)
added Jeff Click's message (thanks Jeff)
added Myrna Wells' message (thanks Myrna)
added Bonny Herndon's message (thanks Bonny)

Last Updated ( Friday, 09 December 2005 )
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