Learn How To Play Dirty Santa—The Best Christmas Game Ever

The unpredictability of whether you'll end up with last year's calendar or a gift card to a local coffee shop is part of the thrill!

Christmas Gift Exchange Party
Photo: kovaciclea/Getty Images

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a good old-fashioned game of scheming and stealing! Whether you call it White Elephant or Dirty Santa, the game sticks to the same format. We're not sure where the name "Dirty Santa" originated, but it's meant to refer to game participants, the "Santas," stealing desirable gifts from each other. As opposed to Secret Santa, where participants are trying to guess who their personalized gifts are from, Dirty Santa adds a fun, competitive twist.

Origins Of The Game

Some believe the gift exchange stems from Siam (now Thailand) where a very annoyed King of Siam gave albino elephants to courtiers who had upset him. Because the elephant was such a rare breed, it required expensive care, and even though it may have appeared like a lavish gift, it was actually a nuisance for the courtier.

Hence the game of "White Elephant," which evolved to gifting impractical items that are not easily disposed of and are often funny for the audience to witness. While "White Elephant" is a common name for this kind of gift swap, "Dirty Santa" is more specific to the South.

What Makes it Fun

Of course, you can always contribute with a nice new gift in the $15-$25 range, but Dirty Santa or White Elephant lends itself to wrapping up something that is completely unexpected, hilarious, and impractical—the tackier the better. Some of our favorite funny gifts that we've witnessed over the years include clown shoes, a jar of pickled pig feet, and an ancient, creepy Santa doll. These gifts are obviously less desirable compared to the funny socks, coffee mugs, and T-shirts, which inevitably show up, but they're sure to get everyone laughing.

If your annual co-worker, supper club, or extended family get-together is tired of cheese balls and small talk, add this festivity to your Christmas party shenanigans. Like all games, White Elephant has a few rules. However, the guidelines aren't completely set in stone—usually, it's up to the host to set the official rules of play.

How To Play Dirty Santa Or White Elephant

  • Select a dollar limit for the gifts and a theme, if you want. A few of our favorite themes are locally made items, gifts that start with a certain letter of the alphabet, and gifts related to something all the participants have done together. Your game doesn't have to have a theme, but it is always best to set a price limit.
  • Specify in your party invitation to wrap the gift without a to-and-from label. Here's a tricky wrapping tip: The more interesting the wrapping, the more excitement there is to choose a certain gift early on. Try wrapping the package in several layers of paper or different size boxes to make it appear like an elaborate gift when it's actually a TV remote, for example. You can also try wrapping the gift to look like a different object, such as a chair or a bottle of wine.
  • Choose a location for the gifts to be placed. It's best that guests don't see each other placing their gifts, in case one happens to know what another guest brought and wants to steal it. Be sure your personal presents are not in the same area, or someone may be going home with a fancy blender intended for Aunt Suzy.
  • Before starting, everyone draws a number from a hat. The slips of paper should be numbered one through the number of people participating. The person with #1 starts the game.
  • The game begins once #1 selects a gift from the pile (after much thought and deliberation, of course), opens it, and shows it to everyone.
  • The person who drew #2 then goes and has the option to steal #1's gift (aka "Dirty Santa") or pick a different gift from the pile. This continues with each person having the chance to steal or choose a wrapped gift.
    • A gift can be stolen no more than three times. The host should keep a tally of each gift and announce once a gift is "dead" and can no longer be stolen.
    • A gift can also only be stolen once per turn. For example, if person #17's gift was stolen, and they steal from person #5, then person #5 cannot steal the gift that was taken from #17.
    • If your gift is stolen, you can't steal it right back. You can steal another gift or choose from the pile. Personally, we're partial to choosing all the mysterious gifts left unopened, so that the whole stash is revealed sooner.
    • In one rule variation, each participant can only be stolen from three times. At that point, they are out of the game, and the gift they're holding is theirs to keep.
  • When all the gifts have been opened, the person who drew #1 has the option to steal a gift (since they did not have any gifts to steal initially). If they choose not to steal and keep the gift they have, the game is over. If they decide to steal, then the game continues until someone decides to keep their gift.

Tips For Winning

Our biggest tip for Dirty Santa is to pay attention to how many times your favorite gifts have been stolen, especially if you're the lucky participant who drew the #1 slot. Remember that the main point of Dirty Santa is creating holiday cheer, so no arguing over the rules. (You don't want to get coal in your stocking, do you?)

WATCH: Learn How to Play Dirty Santa – The Best Christmas Game Ever

We're not sure if Rudolph and the rest of Santa's crew included this wild tradition in their reindeer games, but we know they'd definitely enjoy a little mischief. Good luck avoiding the "white elephant" of the lot at your next holiday party.

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