Four Tips for Organizing a Secret Santa Gift Exchange by Mail

Switch up this year's present swap—it's a great alternative if you can't be together in person. 

wrapping Christmas gifts
Photo: Andrea Obzerova / EyeEm / Getty Images

If there's one tradition that's become ubiquitous at both office and family Christmas celebrations, it's the secret Santa gift exchange. It's a fun and interactive activity that not only sparks conversation, but also fosters good will and boosts morale. But what happens when the holiday party is canceled due to unforeseen circumstances, like, say, a global pandemic? Rather than text your usual participants a "Merry Christmas" or sign off the last Zoom meeting before the holiday with a simple "enjoy your holiday," uphold at least a little semblance of tradition. After all, if there's any year we could all use a little extra holiday cheer, it's this one.

To pull it off, consider hosting a secret Santa game through the mail. Yes, it's possible—and it doesn't require nearly as much coordination as you might think. Here's how to organize a memorable secret Santa seamlessly.

Consider a theme.

For something truly unique, try a themed exchange, says event planner Allison Carter. "I love the idea of exchanging gifts from Black-owned businesses, women-run businesses, or small businesses in general." Or, to take the attention off of more material items and put a charitable spin on the activity, you could even forgo traditional gifts, opting to make a donation to a special organization in your match's name.

Send invitations.

Email or group text works if you're in a bind, but in a year when just about everything—from work and school to happy hours and game nights—has gone virtual, everyone will appreciate a little snail mail. There are so many affordable online retailers that make it easy to design and print your invites—some will even address the envelopes for you! If you've chosen to go with a theme, now's the time to tie it in. But no matter what design you choose, the most important thing is to include all details and parameters—both "event information" for the actual exchange, as well as price limit, and any shipping deadline to ensure all gifts arrive in time. Encourage all guests to RSVP via email, so you know exactly who's "in" and to make it easier to set up a virtual name draw.

Lastly, don't forget to include a note about dress code. Nothing will bring the cheer-factor down faster than everyone signing on to Zoom in their pajamas—unless, of course, everyone wears Christmas ones: holiday sweaters, sparkles and glitter, or red and green are a few other fun ideas, says Carter.

Draw names.

When you can't be together to draw names out of a hat, online generators, like Elfster, are particularly useful. Once you have all participants RSVPs, simply plug their emails into the service, which will automatically scramble all names, then deliver matches to each player via email. Many of these services have helpful additional features, like wish lists and the ability to secretly message your match, to help participants get a little intel on what their recipient really wants this holiday season.

Host an exchange.

No, not an in-person exchange—a virtual one. Though this step is optional (because we know what you're thinking: not another Zoom happy hour), it will really bring your exchange full circle. Though receiving a gift in the mail is exciting, half the fun is seeing what everyone else in the group gives and receives.

To make it feel special, send a few seasonal cocktail recipes through with the meeting link or ask everyone to show up with their favorite sparkling wine to help create a sense of community and play into tradition, says Carter. "Because it's the holidays and everyone loves sweets and new recipes, it would also be fun to have a Google Doc where everyone uploads their favorite cookie, cocktail, or appetizer recipe and then each guest picks one or two to make for the party to enjoy together." But perhaps the most important part of hosting a virtual secret Santa exchange: keep things engaging, says Carter. Limit the event to an hour, tops. And take your job as host seriously. It's up to you to keep things moving. The easiest way to do so: go first and open the gift that you received. When the giver is unveiled, have that person go next, and so on. When all gifts have been exchanged, give a quick, but thoughtful holiday toast before signing off.

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