Ideas for exchanging Christmas gifts

photo credit: Bob Hiemstraphoto credit: Bob HiemstraSure, you could just hand over a gift, but why not present your presents in a more creative way?
by Vanessa DiMaggio and Sarah Humphreys

This is a fact: It's woefully easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of purchasing-or making-holiday gifts. But don't let that suck the joy out of the actual act of giving itself. A gift exchange should be fun; with the right approach, it can also be imaginative, rewarding, and, yes, even a way to cut back on presents. Holiday party planners, etiquette experts, and readers share strategies for making a gift exchange more memorable.

Make Gift-Giving More Surprising

For Friends and Family:

  • Start a rotating gift box. Anna Baldwin, a reader from Arlee, Montana, does this with her three best friends from college: She fills a box with locally made, low-cost items-one for each friend-and a personal note, and mails it off. The first friend takes out a gift, puts in three of her own, adds to the note, and ships everything on to the next. The box rotates like that until it has made the rounds of all the friends, ending up back with Anna, complete with personal notes from her pals and their gifts to her.
  • Introduce a gag gift. Wrap up your most egregious or inexplicable Christmas present from last year (sad-eyed ceramic cat, anyone?) for an unsuspecting family member. It becomes that person's responsibility to pass it along, like a hot potato, the next year.
  • Have a cobweb party. This wacky search game was all the rage during the Victorian era. Designate one room for the party, and assign each player a yarn color. Tie one end of a spool of yarn to each gift-blue yarn to one player's gift, red yarn to another, and so on. Unwind the yarn as you zigzag across the room, trailing it under furniture, looping it around banisters and over curtain rods, anywhere you can. You want to make it as difficult as possible for the gift recipient to follow his or her yarn through the "cobweb" of different colors to find the present. Hand each person his or her spool of yarn and let the mayhem ensue.
  • Do a kids' "musical chairs" gift exchange. "With children you have to be really careful because of their feelings," says Lisa Kothari, owner of the national kids' party-planning business Peppers and Pollywogs. "You have to make sure that everyone gets a gift." Kothari suggests playing a version of musical chairs by having the kids sit in a circle and passing around wrapped gifts while Christmas music plays. The children get to keep whatever they're holding when the music stops-more exciting than just picking a gift out of a bag.
Related: Creative Holiday Gifts That Give Back

For Colleagues:

  • Do a Yankee Swap/White Elephant. "Stealing" from other participants gives this gift exchange game an element of unpredictability. Invite everyone to contribute a wrapped gift (a new item if you're following Yankee Swap rules; a used one if you're doing White Elephant). Draw numbers out of a hat to see who gets to pick from the pile first. Player No. 1 chooses and unwraps a gift, then shows it to everyone else. Player No. 2 then either "steals" that present or picks and unwraps another one from the pile. Player No. 3 can then steal either gift, or choose and unwrap another, and so on. Any player whose gift is stolen gets to pick again. The game continues until everyone has a gift.
  • Play holiday trivia. Can you name all nine of Santa's reindeer? If so, you get first pick of the presents in the pile. Players use clickers or simply raise their hands to answer, and once they get a present, they're out of the competition. At the end, the moderator gets to either choose the last gift remaining or steal a gift from somebody else-a one-time-only privilege for all of his or her hard work.
Related: Holiday Gift Guide: 56 Amazing Presents Under $50

Make Gift-Giving Simpler

  • Go in on a gift with (and for) your family. In lieu of presents, try renting a ski cabin for the weekend after Christmas or going on a beach escape together.
  • Eliminate the guesswork. "I ask gift recipients to send me a wish list that I buy from. It saves time, effort, and returns, yet still preserves an element of surprise," says Real Simple reader Robin McClellan of Lehigh Acres, Florida.
  • Buy recurring gifts. You'll know what to give, and the recipient will look forward to getting, say, an annual shipment of Florida citrus fruits or Vermont cheeses, a series of theater tickets, a museum membership, or even a nice desk calendar.
Related: Stocking Stuffer Ideas

Make Gift-Giving Less Costly

  • With family. Tell them up front you're going to cut back. "Don't make it a money issue with your kids, but talk about it in the context of what the holiday really means: 'This is the time to be with family, not for getting new skis,' " says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com). "Children are resilient," adds Meg Cox, who wrote The Book of New Family Traditions ($13, amazon.com). "If you make the change gradually they'll accept it." Let your extended family know as early as possible that you'd like to give and receive less. (Though some, like grandparents, may be loath to do the same.)
  • With friends and colleagues. Tell them early, and be direct. Say, "I'm paring down this year-why don't we just exchange cards or go out to lunch?" You may find that they're actually relieved.
  • With the unexpected gift-giver. "By all means, say 'Thank you.' But other than being super-appreciative, you do not have to reciprocate," says Peggy Post, coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners ($19, amazon.com).
Keep reading more ways to exchange gifts, like hosting a wrapping party or sponsoring a family in need.

And don't miss these holiday tips from Real Simple:
Holiday Gift Wrap and Problem-Solving Tools
Great Gifts for Holiday Hosts
15 Easy Christmas Decorations