Coworker Gift Exchanges

Dear, Anita,

Morale has been low around our office since we learned we would not be getting a year-end bonus due to a downturn in company sales. I’d like to organize some sort of gift exchange to spread some holiday cheer. Any ideas?

Dear, Cindy Lou Who,

There are several un-Grinch-like options to get you and your coworkers in the Christmas spirit.  I’ve even heard of some offices that do some version giving a gift on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. Not literally, though like Andy on The Office:

But a gift swap should be fun and not a burden (so the 12 Days of Christmas is out, considering all the other family and friends you have to buy for). Keep the gift budget to a comfortable level for all participants. It’s not about the cost; it’s about how creative you can get for the money!

Why not try a Theme Gift Exchange? One year can be ornaments, the next year a coffee/tea mug, and the following year food items, to mix it up a bit.

The simplest way to exchange gifts with workmates is to have a Gift Grab Bag. Everyone brings a gift of a pre-set value suitable for a coworker of any gender or age and contributes to the grab bag.

Celebration of Christmas in the officeTo add a little friendly rivalry to the party, try a Yankee Swap or White Elephant Gift Exchange.* Everyone contributes a wrapped gift – a new item for Yankee Swap rules; a used one is often brought for White Elephant exchanges with sometimes hilarious regifting high jinks. Draw numbers to see who gets to pick from the array of gifts first. Player #1 chooses a present, unwraps it, and displays for all to see – and possibly envy. Player #2 then either “steals” that item or picks an unopened gift from the remaining pile. Each subsequent
team member can either steal any opened gift or choose to unwrap another. Any player whose gift is stolen gets to pick again. The game continues until everyone has a present.

Another option is Secret Santa. WikiHow has instructions on setting up this name-draw exchange. For a laugh, here are some additional rules, courtesy of At or, you can let the Internet help keep the name draw and notifications undercover. Euroffice offers some workplace gift-giving tips in its infographic here.

Gift exchanges can occur at the holiday party, lunchtime potluck, or December’s departmental meeting. In lieu of a gift exchange, keep to a food motif. Simplify the Martha Stewart 8-step Cookie Swap party – festive paper plates and saran wrap will do! Each person brings two dozen holiday cookies and goes home with a sampling of each of their coworkers’ culinary creations.

Sometimes the best way to get your mind off your woes is to help someone else. Consider organizing a Charitable Drive. You can collect Toys for Tots, help Make-a-Wish Foundation, donate to a local charity that organizes gifts for foster kids or for children whose parents are in prison, or sponsor a needy family by providing gifts plus a holiday meal. To quote Dr. Seuss, “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!

Readers: What was your most memorable holiday gift-giving event at work?

*Random tidbits: The term “white elephant” refers to a burdensome gift not easily disposed of, supposedly after the King of Siam gifted albino elephants to courtiers who displeased him so they would sink into financial ruin because of the costs to maintain the animals. The “Yankee Swap” term is said to have come from the civil war tradition of trading Confederate soldiers for wounded or sickly Yankee prisoners of war.

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Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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