Dirty Santa Rules: How to Host the Best Christmas Gift Exchange

Some call it Dirty Santa. To others it’s White Elephant or Yankee Swap. Whatever you call it, the rules of the fun gift exchange game are pretty much the same. The Dirty Santa rules are quite simple.

What Is Dirty Santa

Dirty Santa is a Christmas gift exchange game played at parties that has become a favorite holiday tradition around the country.

At office parties, holiday cocktail parties, and even Christmas morning in some households, everyone gets a kick out of the Dirty Santa game that encourages stealing hilarious gag gifts from your friends and loved ones.

The name Dirty Santa may sound like something naughty to some people—are you having flashbacks to the movie [easyazon_link identifier=”B009ZM6WEC” locale=”US” tag=”dirtysanta-20″]Bad Santa[/easyazon_link] right now?—but in this case, Santa is dirty because he’s a dirty thief!

The point of this game is to steal great gifts from the other guests.

In this game, you are the Dirty Santa. Everyone’s a dirty Santa.

The key to a fun and engaging Dirty Santa party is finding the right gift. A Dirty Santa gift should be something funny, a little weird perhaps, but definitely something everyone wants. It might even be a ridiculous gag gift, just naughty or silly enough to embarrass your boss or grandmother (but maybe not enough to get you fired or disowned).

One of the best parts of a Dirty Santa Game is watching people squirm after they got stuck with a weird gift. Yes, that sounds a little mean spirited, but it’s a game called Dirty Santa. What did you expect?

Dirty Santa Rules: How to Play the Popular Gift Exchange Game

Never played Dirty Santa before? It is actually quite easy. Follow this guide to learn the rules for Dirty Santa and running your own Dirty Santa gift exchange. You’ll be the king of the holiday party!

Dirty Santa Rules: Before the Dirty Santa Game

First, you need to host a party and ask everyone to bring a gift. Give your guests a budget, considering what’s appropriate for people to spend. The typical amount is no more than $10, especially if your friends are young and/or broke. Older adults tend to be a little more flush, so $20-$25 is a reasonable range.

Before the party, everyone should wrap their gift or put it in a gift bag without a name or tag. Once at the party, guests should place all the gifts on a table in the middle of the room.

Dirty Santa Rules: Playing the Game

It’s party time! So how do you play Dirty Santa?

Write numbers on slips of paper equaling the number of gifts available.

Have every party guest draw a number. Decide who starts, for example by Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe or a draw of matchsticks.

Next, decide which way (clockwise or counterclockwise) guests choose their gifts.

Here’s how to play Dirty Santa:

  1. Player #1 goes first (obviously). They choose a gift from the table, and open it.
  2. Player #2 can either steal the gift from Player #1, or open a new gift. If Player #2 two chooses to steal the gift from Player #1, then Player #1 can only open a new gift, not steal the gift back from Player #2.
  3. Player #3 can steal the gift from Player #1 or Player #2, or they can choose a new gift from the table. If Player #3 steals a gift, whichever player gets their gift stolen gets to open another gift or steal from another player.
  4. Player #4 can steal from Player #1, Player #2, Player #3, or open a new gift. If Player #4 steals a gift, the player who gets their gift stolen gets to open a new gift or steal from any other player.
  5. And so on, until the last gift is opened.

Ground Rules of the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange

It’s good to establish a few ground Stealing Santa rules ahead of time so the game doesn’t get out of control and go on too long.

No Immediate Steal-Back

The most important Dirty Santa rule, which should be obvious from the above description but which you should tell your guests anyway is that no participant may steal back a gift just taken from them. They can either open a new gift or steal another gift.

Stealing Limits

You should set a few Dirty Santa game rules for stealing. If you have a large group, it is a good idea to set limits on the stealing so that game stays contained and civilized. Most importantly, the stealing rules set the pace of the game, otherwise it can go on forever.

Some examples of stealing limits include:

  • Only three steals per item. Once an item has exchanged hands three times, it stays with the third person and can’t be stolen anymore. This is helpful if you have large groups, but can put a damper on the fun with very popular item that will go through three steals rather quickly.
  • Only three steals per person. A person can only be stolen from three times, then after that they get to keep what they have and are protected from being stolen from. Again, if you have large groups this can limit the amount of stealing and the amount of time playing the game.
  • Three owns and it’s mine. This means if I am the owner of a gift three times, it’s mine for good after owning it for the third time. For example, Player #1 gets a Star Wars can opener he really, really wants to keep (1st own). Player #2 steals it from him, and Player #1 opens another gift. Player #3 steals the new gift, and Player #1 steals the can opener back from Player #2 (2nd own). If someone steals the opener from Player #1 again and he is able to steal it back for the third time (3rd own), it’s his for good.

Budget Rules

Make sure you give your guests a spending limit so that most of the gifts are similar in value. It might also be helpful to come up with Christmas gift exchange theme ideas to give your guests some guidance on what to purchase.


If there will be children participating in the Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap game, tell your guests. This will avoid any embarrassment from children opening adult-themed gifts or alcohol.

Also know what is appropriate in the office environment. Generally, adult-themed gifts are a no-no but it depends on the office culture.

Incentive Prizes

Another Dirty Santa (or White Elephant) rule that can help ensure the game is lively is to give an incentive prize to the guest whose gift has the most steals or the gift that “retires” the quickest. This motivates guests to bring well-thought-out gifts that are clever and that people really want.

Individual or Couple Players

Usually it’s okay for people to play as individuals or as pairs or couples. Playing as a couple means you can and should buy a more expensive gift, but then of course you have to share whatever gift you get.

Variations of the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange

Regift It

This requires guests to bring something they own, either a regift or an item from their home (that’s not obviously used or ragged).

Depending on your guests, this can be a lot of fun.

Homemade Only

In this version of Dirty Santa Christmas gift swap game, guests can only bring home made items, such as cookies, beer, preserves, crafts, household products, or artwork. This works well if you have a group of people who like to cook or bake, or perhaps a knitting or a craft group.

Pick a Theme

Inspire your guests with a fun Christmas gift exchange theme.

For example, gifts need to be related to cooking, sports, or music. Or you can have guests bring gifts that only start with a certain letter. Nothing wrong with edible gifts or booze-related gifts. So many Yankee Swap theme ideas to choose from!

Don’t Judge a Gift by Its Wrapping

The gifts are wrapped identically, either by the host or per instructions by the guests. The host could provide the same gift bag for all gifts, or require gifts to come in the same size box.

Go Fish

Everyone buys from the same place, either from one store, flea market, thrift store, Grocery Outlet, or Craigslist.

Gift Card Roulette

Each guest brings a gift card of the same value to a store of their choice, or from a list provided by the host. This ensures a more equal playing field but can result in some fun stealing for more desirable cards.

Dirty Guessing

All gifts in the Dirty Santa Gift Exchange are selected and swapped before any are opened. Players must judge what’s inside each present by the shape, weight and feel of the wrapping.

Gift It To The Limit

If there is enough time some groups allow infinite swapping at the end of the game, in hopes that each person will end up with the item they want the most.

Get a Clue

If you want to add a little more mystery and guessing to your game, have guests write a clue about their gift on the outside.

Whose Gift Is This Anyway?

Most people play Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap with anonymous gifts, but it can also be fun to pick from gifts with the gifter’s name on it, particularly if the guests know each other well. Another idea is to have people guess who brought their gift, and perhaps get a small prize from the host if they guess correctly.

Some ambitious hosts may provide extra wrapped packages that contain special rules or instructions like pick two gifts, block a gift from being stolen, or choose the next player’s gift for them.

Avoiding Dirty Santa Disappointment

Every so often at a Dirty Santa Gift Exchange Game, an unfortunate situation happens. Player #1 chooses a gift and opens it, and it turns our to be a dud, and they don’t get to participate in stealing the rest of the game.

Yes, getting a dud is sad for Player #1, but there’s not much they can do about it without making the game unfair for others.

This isn’t just an issue for Player #1. Anyone can end up with a dud, and then they’re done for the rest of the game. Player #1 does have the advantage of being able to choose any gift on the table.

Dirty Santa Dos

The Dirty Santa or White Elephant game is fun and entertaining. You don’t want to take it too seriously, but these tips will help everyone have the maximum amount of fun.

  • If you are the host, DO have a few extra gifts on hand in case someone forgets their gift. The more people, the more stealing, the more fun the game.
  • DO wrap your gift strategically. A big, beautiful wrapping job is likely to get picked early on, creating more opportunities to steal. Some people like trick wrapping, where they wrap a small gift in a large box to give the impression the gift is larger than it actually is. Ha-ha, gotcha!
  • DO get creative in your gift selection. Consider your crowd and what people like. Are they funny, or serious, or dirty-minded? Find something that will keep the party lively. It doesn’t have to be funny–an interesting gadget or cool toy or game is usually a popular choice.
  • If you don’t have time to shop, DO bring alcohol for a Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap gift, especially to the office holiday gift exchange party. It’s a great way to root out the true alcoholics. This isn’t such a great idea if anyone under 21 is playing.
  • DO regift, especially if it is a popular or particularly hilarious gift from a previous Dirty Santa party. Some of the most fun, hilarious Dirty Santa parties involve gifts from previous years. How funny is it when the hilarious Jeff Goldblum Shower Curtain that people fought over the previous year makes a re-appearance?
  • If someone has a gift you want,  DO steal it! This is the whole point of the game. Nothing kills a Dirty Santa Gift Exchange game like everyone opening gifts rather than stealing them.

Dirty Santa Don’ts

Here’s just a few reminders to help everyone have a good time and keep the game moving.

  • DON’T bring a bunch of random useless crap that no one wants, like a used coupon book or your grandma’s ugly vase full of fake flowers. You want something funny and entertaining that people will actually be envious of and encourage ruthless stealing from one another.
  • This is not a serious game, so DON’T refrain from stealing a gift because you feel sorry for someone. The whole point of the game is to steal gifts so that others can be opened and revealed, leading to more stealing.
  • DON’T be like Michael Scott from [easyazon_link identifier=”B00LTO342M” locale=”US” tag=”dirtysanta-20″]The Office[/easyazon_link] and spend too much money on a Dirty Santa gift. Gifts that are obviously expensive will just get stolen right away and where’s the fun in that? $50 is a good maximum.
  • DON’T open or steal your own gift. The point is to go home with something fun and new that you can either use, or regift at another party. If you really want the gift you brought, just buy another one for yourself.
  • Remember, this is a game! DON’T get upset if someone steals from you. It’s the point of the game, and really, you can go buy one for yourself if you really want it.

Best Dirty Santa Gifts to Get You Started

Dirty Santa Gifts should be first and foremost entertaining. It’s all about the fun, not about giving away some old stuff you were going to donate to the thrift store.

As we said above, it’s definitely okay to regift if the gift is a great Dirty Santa gift that will contribute to the fun.

If you don’t want to spend money, you can always abstain from the game. But what would be the fun in that? Use your sense of humor and find a unique gift that will make people laugh but that’s also something people really want.

Here are a handful of Dirty Santa gift exchange ideas to get you started. Click through on the gifts themselves or dedicated articles elsewhere at our website.

White Elephant Gadgets

Quirky gadgets make for fun White Elephant gifts. Everyone loves gadgets for the home, traveling, camping, or for wasting time in the office. The great thing about giving a gadget as a gift is that they are usually useful and more likely to be something a person will actually enjoy and use. Among Dirty Santa gift ideas, kitchen gadgets are particularly popular, as well as gadgets for camping.

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Funny Dirty Santa Gifts

Some of the best Naughty Santa gift exchange parties usually involve one or two hilarious gifts that have everyone rolling on the floor. While it may seem juvenile, sometimes the funny gag gifts are the ones that get passed around the most.

Want to make the party guests crack up? There’s nothing like a [easyazon_link identifier=”B001E21V9M” locale=”US” tag=”dirtysanta-20″]Farting Piggy Bank[/easyazon_link] to get the laughs going. Ridiculous, right? But you know everyone is going to think it’s hilarious. I mean, whoever thought of this?

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Weird Dirty Santa Gifts: The Pop Culture Edition

You never know who is going to fall in love with the Jeff Goldbum Shower Curtain someone brought. Strange, but intriguing and perfect for those guests with a twisted sense of humor. These gifts are like conversation pieces: Who thought of that? And, most importantly, why?

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Alcohol Gifts for a Boozy Yankee Swap Gift Exchange

If you’re playing with adults, alcohol is usually a crowd pleaser. Even if sticking within a $20 limit, you can buy a pretty nice bottle of wine, beer selection, or even a decent pint of spirits for that price. You can also dip into your personal cellar, in which case you are definitely invited to my Dirty Santa gift exchange party. Alcohol-related gadgets and gag-gifts also make for good Dirty Santa gifts.

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A Classic Dirty Santa Gift Idea: Ugly Holiday Sweaters

Sure, you can take the easy route and get some funny t-shirts for your Dirty Santa gift exchange. But it’s the holiday season, so there’s no shame in giving an ugly sweater as a Dirty Santa gift.

Ugly sweater parties are now a thing during the holidays and make for some of the best Dirty Santa gifts. People love them! The uglier the better and more likely to generate laughs and lots of steals.

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Naughty Dirty Santa Gifts

Obviously you wouldn’t want to bring a naughty gift to a Bad Santa gift exchange party with children, or potentially an office party. But at an adult party with friends you know won’t be offended, a naughty gift is sure to garner some laughs and a number of steals. Who are the perverts at your Dirty Santa Party? Bring a naughty gift and find out. (Oh yeah, you’re definitely one of them.)

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Featured image by miuenski miuenski.

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