Holigay Gift Guide: Secret Santa 101, The Art of Anonymous Gifting

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We’re approaching that time of the year where many of you will be forced to participate in the holiday season’s most inane ritual, the workplace Secret Santa gift exchange (aka Kris Kringle).This guide will make being someone’s Secret Santa at least 60% more enjoyable. That’s science.

Buying a gift for an acquaintance is impossible enough without having to stick to a budget of $20 or less. If you work in a large office, there’s a good chance you’ll be buying for someone who you’ve never spoken to ever, or worse – someone you can’t even identify by name. So what do you get them?

It’s tempting to leave the gift buying until the last possible hour because, after all, Tina from Accounting will never find out that the nativity scene snow-globe was a present from you. But that sense of security you’re feeling is totally false! At the next office party, whoever coordinated the gift exchange is going to have a few too many shandies and start ratting out the lousy gift-givers to their colleagues. If you think this doesn’t happen in your workplace then you’re probably one of the offenders.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of terrible Secret Santa gifts for almost a decade, I feel somewhat qualified to offer up some gift ideas and advise you on Secret Santa gift etiquette.

Don’t: Scented candles
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve received candles during Secret Santa, I’d have enough money to commission Madame Tussauds to melt those candles down into a vanilla and peach-scented statue of Det. Kate Beckett. Now that would be a good gift. But instead what I’ve got is a box full of fruit flavored wax taking up valuable sneaker space on my wardrobe floor.

The thing about scented candles is that you have to be either a candle person or a pot-smoking teenager to really appreciate them, and that probably rules out a lot of your co-workers.

Do: Gift cards
At some point in your life someone from the olden days probably told you that gift cards are highly impersonal presents. That’s what makes them so perfect! You don’t know your colleague on a personal level, don’t bother to pretend otherwise.

If your first instinct was ‘candles!’, maybe give them a Home Depot gift card instead. That way they can buy, or not buy, as many candles as they desire. Also Amazon.com Gift Cards are great because if you totally forgot about Secret Santa then you can download and print them minutes before the exchange.

Don’t: Gift baskets
Gift cards say ‘I don’t know you but I want you to buy yourself something nice’. Gift baskets filled with lavender bath salts and duckling-shaped washcloths say ‘I don’t know you and I don’t care about your happiness’. Also, apartments with bath-tubs are expensive. If your co-worker cannot afford to own a bathtub then they might resent you. I’m just saying this because I probably would.

Do: Gourmet tea or coffee
Most people drink beverages as they work, and you don’t have to be Veronica Mars to figure out what that their preferred beverage is – just follow them into the kitchen. Gifting gourmet tea, coffee or hot chocolate will appear thoughtful and also taste better than the cheap crap the company provides.

If you’d rather take the non-perishable route, maybe go for a desk-sized Bodum coffee press or this Tea Spot ceramic mug with tea infuser.

Don’t: Earrings
Not all females have their ear lobes pierced. Maybe you just rolled your eyes and shouted “DUH”, however the 4 pairs of never-worn earrings I’ve accumulated since 2001 have led me to believe this is not, in fact, common knowledge. Earrings will put your non-pierced co-workers in a tough position because faking excitement to spare your feelings just isn’t an option; they know one day you’ll realise they lied. No-one wins with earrings. Actually just steer clear of jewellery altogether.

Do: Chocolate or wine
Chocolate and alcohol can be re-gifted with a clear conscience. If your co-worker doesn’t personally enjoy chocolates or alcohol, what you’re giving them is the gift of not having to put any thought or effort into next year’s Secret Santa exchange. That’s perhaps the greatest gift of all.

I suggest Ghirardelli Assorted Chocolate Squares. Everybody loves Ghirardelli.

Don’t: Clothing
If the size is too big or too small then someone might get offended, so it’s best to just not go there. Unless you were planning to give them a Unicorn Plan-It t-shirt, in which case you definitely should go there. Just remember that they’re a unisex fit and so order a size down.

Do: Procrastination-enabling gifts
Procrastinating is something that all office workers like; it’s universal. I’ve never seen a procrastination-enabling gift go unappreciated. Any item or game that can provide a few minutes of distraction each day is going to be a winner, particularly if your co-worker is under 40 and also not your boss. For extra points, choose something that the entire team or department can get enjoy.

Suggestions include this Office Origami book, this poker set, and if you have a high tolerance for noise, this desktop table tennis kit. 

Don’t: Inexpensive versions of expensive things
If a particular kind of gift typically costs $50 or more, don’t buy your co-worker an under-$20 version. If it’s perfume or cologne, it will smell like paint thinner. If it’s liquor, it will taste like paint thinner. There’s a reason that these things usually cost more than $20.

Do: Things that make being at the office better 
Anything that will make the working environment more enjoyable, healthy or aesthetically pleasing is a good idea. I like to give people plants, ‘cause they’re cheap, pretty, and rid the office of pollutants. Only an asshole wouldn’t appreciate the benefits of a plant.

For something more interactive, consider a Bonsai Growing Kit. Or if your work environment is already appealing, buy them a gift that’ll improve the environments of others – such as art supplies for children in disadvantaged communities. Oxfam Unwrapped has so many great donation gifts, you guys.

Don’t: Job-related gifts
That cute frog-shaped hole-puncher may seem like a super great gift for an office paper-pusher but I assure you, it isn’t. Most likely it’ll only remind them that as soon as this shitty management-mandated gift-swap is over they’re gonna have to return to their desks and do some more fucking filing.

Also if the gift serves the same purpose as an object that can be found in the office stationery cupboard, the recipient may find it underwhelming. That includes USB flash drives.

Gifts ideas under $10 
Sticky Note Origami: 25 Designs To Make At Your Desk. I’m just really into office origami right now. 

The Little Black Book of Brain Games

Cassette iPhone 4 Case

Mini Desktop Darts

Moleskin Notebook

Gingerbread cookie kit

Baoding Balls

Disposable camera

The Official Book of Sudoku

Office Magnetic Poetry Kit

Let’s help each other out – what are some of the best and worst Secret Santa gifts you’ve received? This year I have to buy for a nun, any suggestions?

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Crystal is Autostraddle's HR Director. She resides in Sydney, Australia, where she wears black clothing almost exclusively and listens to Green Day as enthusiastically as she did at 13.

Crystal has written 297 articles for us.

53 Comments

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    I like giving gift cards to local restaurants near the office. It’s like buying them lunch in a way. Also, some folks I’ve worked with wanted to go out to lunch instead of brown bagging it and it was a way they could have a treat while keeping their budget goals. iTunes is also a good choice.

    A pretty box of clementines has also been a big hit. People seem to really like them and are thrilled to take them home. I also bring this to potlucks with great success.

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    I absolutely love these suggestions, and especially agree not to give scented candles or bath gift baskets. I’ve received so many of both those things that I eventually donated them all to my local thrift store/charity shop en masse.

    However, as a weirdo who really doesn’t like Ghiradelli, might I suggest Toblerone, Frango, or Godiva instead? Yum!

    My favorite gift I ever received was a bouquet of tropical flowers, after my secret Santa found out I’d always wanted to travel to Hawaii.

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    Office Gift Horror Story:

    My dumbass waited to the last minute to buy all the people (I know) gifts and I had a girlfriend too (good times)! So all the gifts I bought where boxed shaped for easy gift wrapping because I actually enjoyed wrapping gifts.

    I bought gifts from various places such as Spencer’s, a local porn shop and a cool craft store. The porn shop gift was a cute beginner portable S&M kit and the craft gift was to make your own label/scrapbook set (I bought two since it was awesome) were about the same size and weight and I forgot to use different gift wrap because I was being cheap and yeah.

    Ahhh the fun part: I mixed the two gifts up and gave the porn gift to my co-worker and the scrapbook/label set to my ex-gf. My ex-gf LOVED her gift since she has so many pictures to make all kinds of scrapbooks with and she was really happy.

    My co-worker…I can’t even right now, opened the gift in front of a large group of people and the reaction was priceless but horrifying because he was a father of 3 kids and loved Jesus, amen? Amen.

    My saving grace was that we did not put the name of the giver but I had a feeling everyone knew it was me or the manager of the HR department which we (well me) felt was a freak in the sheets. Also. also. ALSO, as horrified he was receiving the gift, he didn’t throw it in away! Plus office gossip a couple days later some people saw “S&M” like marks and bruises on his wrists *side eye* I think people were making shit up and he probably did throw it away I don’t know.

    AS peeps, secret Santa scarred me for life and I put my gifts in gift bags, I don’t wrap anymore. I just can’t anymore. People find this story funny because it is but I need to know that I am not alone in giving people *extremely* inappropriate gifts by mistake.

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      Every single year my mom tells us the same story about her childhood christmas mornings:
      She and my uncle would open their stockings and in them would find a potato. They would be so happy and play all morning with the potato, but then my grandma would take the potatoes away and make them into mashed potatoes for dinner.

      She keeps trying to convince me she was poor, but her dad was a doctor so I know the truth. It does make me hope that some year I’ll get a potato in my stocking though…

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    I like getting scented candles, just don’t buy the cheaply made kind because they smell and look horrid.

    I used to give chocolates, but got funny looks (like I was hitting on the recipient or something), so I stopped doing that. Disadvantage of being a gay lady, I guess.

    Coffee seems to get the best response, so I’m aiming for that this year.

    Gift baskets are ok if the products inside are nice. If you get generic bath products, meh. If there’s something philosophy inside, I’ll love you forever. Same goes for food baskets. I’ve gotten some great gourmet foods that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise from gift baskets.

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    Once, I had mistakenly scrambled up my pre-Christmas gift for my (then new) girlfriend and the one for the exchange gift at my first ever Christmas party at my (then new) job.

    How it worked was that you were supposed to drop in a generic gift and you draw a number that corresponded to a presumably generic gift. Well, my new office crush drew my gag gift for the girlfriend: a cartoony green and red thong.

    She opened it in front of everyone, too. She was horrified.

    I was, too, except I had to stifle my scream inside (or threw in my mouth silently) as I was hosting the damn party.

    True story.

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    Oh, thanks for this guide. Very useful! I usually give coffee too. I like the stories of mix-up of presents. The worst I ever did was re-gift a present I got from somebody. To his twin sister. Oops.

    And forgive me for sounding like an asshole, but I don’t like getting plants. You have to take care of ‘em or else they die, so it’s kind of a commitment. It looks bad when they’re dying, because it makes you look like a bad person and an asshole.

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    NUN GIFTS
    I second the idea of the plant for a nun. I spent a couple of months with Benedictine nuns once and there are two things they have a bunch of: religious books and religious stuff.

    So…don’t get her a religious book or religious stuff (Super helpful FTW). Depending on the particular sect they are affiliated with, many of them go out into the community and actively participate in hospitals, schools, other churches, community organizations, etc.

    A couple of your suggestions would work really well. Chocolate–nuns love chocolate. Coffee/tea–my nuns drank coffee like it was their job…except their job was actually being married to Jesus…so I suppose it was more like a part-time barista thing. Moleskine works well with some nice pens–nuns love writing down little “pieces of wisdom” and then sharing it with you.

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    I love Secret Santa!!! I always manage to draw somebody I don’t know very well though, which makes it really hard to know what to buy them. This year I’ve made a wishlist of stuff on Amazon that cost £5 and posted it to facebook as a huge hint to whoever draws my name out the hat!

    The best thing I ever received was some crocus bulbs in a ceramic pot, it was fun to watch the bulbs start to sprout and grow as winter ended and after spring, I planted them out in the garden so I get to see them every year now.

    I’ve never really had anything that bad from Secret Santa. One year I got the dreaded candle, which I let my Mum have, and a mini flashing glass christmas tree ornament, which sounds tacky but I liked it for that exact reason – it was GOOD tacky!

    Here’s a present for a nun:
    http://www.pinkcatshop.com/products/com012-nun—i-feel-a-sin-coming-on—compact.html

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      I love gifts that are good tacky. The first secret santa gift I ever received was a christmas tree- shaped cheese platter (but with no cheese to accompany it). At first I was a little WTF-y about it, but now it’s pretty much my favorite thing.

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    i hate secret santa so flipping much. its not fun. i dont like it. maybe i am a scrooge but IT JUST GIVES ME TOO MUCH ANXIETY.
    at our work christmas meeting a few weeks ago there was discussion of secret santa but i just kept yelling “NO NOPE NO NO NOPE NOOOOO NO” over people and we arent doing it.
    SUCCESS.

    btw i had other awesome replacement ideas. like bring your pet to work day. or wear your pajamas to work day.

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    “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve received candles during Secret Santa, I’d have enough money to commission Madame Tussauds to melt those candles down into a vanilla and peach-scented statue of Det. Kate Beckett. ”
    I love you for this moment.

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    I usually default to a really cool mug (they have neat ones at Pier 1 that can suit pretty much any interest and are $4-$10). minus the toilet shaped mug mentioned above. also, everyone drinks coffee and tea, right?

    Gift certificates to local farmer’s markets (for next season) have been really successful for me in the past, plus if it’s a co-worker you’d like to hang out with more, this is a fairly easy way to find something to do with someone you don’t know very well.

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    Most of the Secret Santa gifts in my office end up being gift cards. Which is kind of boring, but at least it’s useful to the receiver.

    At my old job we did a Yankee Swap one year. Our office manager, who was a real bitch, ended up with a book of personality tests. We all laughed hysterically and she got so mad she threw it in the trash.

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    I once got a rude balloon modelling kit.
    I then got slightly intoxicated on Christmas day and proceeded to make rude balloons. By the time we sat down for Christmas dinner there was a penis, a rude dog (a normal dog… with a penis) and the most detailed balloon vagina you’ve ever seen.
    I thin this is how my parents realised I was a lesbian.

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    Oooh I dislike Kris Kringle. The only reason why I’m willing to do it for work this year is because if you go to the Christmas dinner you have to be involved, and I want to go to the dinner because it is at a super fancy restaurant. I sound like a grinch don’t I.

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    I gave someone a dinosaur Chia Pet once, I feel that was a high point of my Secret Santa-ing.

    I find that yoghurt-covered raisins are really excellent sweets if you feel like giving sweets–they aren’t chocolate, which some people can’t handle and others don’t like, and they’re the kind of thing almost no one buys for themselves. If you know they’re not candy people then go buy the really good pretzel chunks with the mustard powder.

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    Best workplace Secret Santa gift – a mug/bowl/plate set. I guess whoever gave me the gift saw my ratty melamine frangipani plate I got for $2 at the Reject Shop and thought I needed an upgrade. And s/he was RIGHT.

    This isn’t a Secret Santa gift per se, but at the White Elephant gift exchange we used to do at the pool where I worked in college, one of the guys wrapped up a framed, signed picture of himself. It ended up being the most traded item of the night.

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    Someone from this site has a cat fetish. :) There are cats hidden and sparkled all over the place and they don’t necessarily have relations with the content. I love it! The cat with the Santa hat in the moving header image on the home page, leading to this article, was So Cute!!!!! My gosh!

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    One of the best ideas in leu of a gift card is Scratch Off Lottery tickets!! You can stay in your $$ limit yet the potential is endless… also, Ive found that this is good for a round robin type gift exchange, everyone wanted it!

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    There’s lots of gifts. It doesn’t have to be money. Next time your at the store, pick up a couple things for someone you know that needs some help & just leave it at their door. Offer to sit & have coffee with a lonely soul. Make a trip to the nursing homes, childrens hospitals & just say hello. The world is full of lonely people or people who feel all alone…the gift of your TIME sometimes can be the most beautiful gift of all.. I’ve had lots of ‘helpers’ in my life…the little old lady who gave me a couple dollars at the grocery store because I didn’t have enough, the friend who stopped by to offer me an hours sleep as a single mom by taking my kids to the park.. Giving from your heart, doing good works with good intentions…is an attitude adjustment we all could use & just think what a more beautiful place this would be.

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    In my first year of uni, me and my newly made group of friends did Secret Santa. Before we exchanged gifts I was talking one of my friends who excitedly told me that the second she’d drawn the name that she had, she had known EXACTLY what to get that person.. It turned out that it was my name she’d drawn.. and my perfect gift? –> a moneybox in the shape of a pig wearing a top hat.
    I had seriously no idea what to make of that.

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