Playing dirty Santa is like fighting over presents! Photo of a man and woman tugging on a Christmas giftHave you heard of the dirty Santa gift game before? It is a family-friendly present exchange game. I only heard of it recently, but then discovered I have played this myself, just under other names.

Once, we played and everyone kept grabbing the gift my father wanted! It wasn’t so much we wanted it (let’s face it, it was a $3 item from Kmart!), but it became a game watching Dad sweat it out each time he regained it!


Alternative gift exchanges to dirty Santa gift game

The game is known by various names, and some have slightly different rules.
  • Dirty Santa – where the presents have to be second hand
  • White Elephant
  • Kris Kringle (although I use that term for something else, not a game)
  • Christmas Thief
  • Sock Santa – all the presents are in a pair of Christmas (or normal) socks
  • Rock-paper gift game – when it’s your turn, if you want to steal a gift you have to beat the other person in rock-paper-scissors first!
  • kings & queens Christmas gift exchange – instead of a number, everyone holds a normal playing card. Someone calls out the cards in random order and that person selects or steals a present.

There are also lots of of similar games, like the dice gift exchange, musical gifts and pass the parcel present exchange games, but that’s a post for another day! Laughing family beside a Cirstmas tree with a pile of beautifully wrapped presents

Playing Dirty Santa

  1. Ask everyone to bring a gift that would suit anybody at the event.
  2. You can set a theme (eg summer, Christmas, outdoors, funny, blue) and it is usual to set a price. The price you set will depend on the group and whether it is replacing more personalised gifts, but under $10, under $20 and $15-$20 are common limits for these games. To make it ‘dirty’, every gift has to be used – either something you have at home or something you grab from an op shop or trash ‘n’ treasure market. This rule is not always in place.
  3. When everyone is ready, make a pile of presents in the centre of the room or playing area, with everyone sitting around the pile.
  4. Everybody who brings a gift is given a number from 1 to however many people are playing.
  5. Person number 1 choses any present they like from the pile, and opens it.
  6. Person 2 picks any present from the pile OR takes the present from person 1. They cannot open a present then steal one!
  7. Person 3 picks any present from the pile OR takes the present from person 1 or 2. They also cannot open a present then steal one!
  8. And so on, until everyone has had their turn. Each person in the turn gets more choices. The last person obviously gets their choice of all the presents!

  If your present is taken by someone else, you get to pick another present off the pile before someone else gets a turn. Sometimes, people play than person 1 gets the final choice from all the presents just to keep it interesting!

Getting your Santa number

There are lots of ways to get your number for playing dirty Santa. I’ve suggested a few below, but you may have another idea – and we’d love you to share it in the comments below!

  1. put the numbers in a Santa hat and everyone pulls out a number. Or write numbers onto a wrapped chocolate Santa or similar and everyone choses one from the bowl.
  2. play a game and the winner gets the highest number, second gets the second highest number, and so on. You could play some Christmassy or minute-to-win-it games, a who-dunnit game, rock-paper-scissors, a board game (Christmas Monopoly is a good choice!), an outdoor game like Finska, or any other game you like! You could even run a  Christmas trivia quiz!
  3. do an elimination activity, with people getting the numbers in order as they are eliminated. Try ‘Santa says’, longest to balance on one leg, build the tallest tower of cherries, name the most Christmas carols, or balance some mince pies on your forehead for the longest!
  4. list everyone in order of age – eldest to get number 1 and so on
  5. put everyone in birthdate order – if you have a birthday on 1 of January, you get number 1, if your birthday is on 28 September, you get 28, etc. For two people on the same date, the lowest month number gets a lower number. it depends on the group as to how well this will work, but it can be funny to try!
  6. hand out numbers randomly as people arrive
  7. place numbers around the room or house and let everyone find them!


Have fun! And if you play this Christmas, use the comments below to let us know how it goes or share some photos.

Dirty Santa gift game