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Secret Santa, white elephant and grab bags: An alternative gift exchange

Illustration of four arms exchanging holiday gifts.

Laughable lawn ornaments, holiday movie-themed novelties and a bottle of booze. It's all part of the Christmas Eve tradition for UND senior Katie Macey, of Eden Prairie, Minn., and her family.

Every year she and her 15 aunts, uncles and cousins each bring one wrapped present to the family get-together on Christmas Eve. None of the presents have labels, nor do they have specific recipients. The gifts are part of the white elephant gift exchange, which her family started five years ago.

Whether it's to save money, avoid the stress involved with holiday shopping or as Macey said just "for the heck of it," many area families participate in alternative gift exchanges during the holidays.

A white elephant tradition

For Macey's family, the white elephant exchange came about as part of another holiday tradition.

"We do family games every year on Christmas Eve," Macey said. "Every family comes with a game they want to play; it can be trivia, a board game, Scattergories. It's a big thing."

One year, Macey's Aunt Jane chose a white elephant exchange as her game, and it was a hit with the whole family.

"That one was the most fun, so it kept getting repeated every year," Macey said. "(It's) like a set event for us now."

With the presents in a pile, the exchange starts with a game. Sometimes it's trivia; sometimes it's as simple as Go Fish. When someone loses the game, they get to pick a gift from the pile. After opening the gift, the game continues until another person is knocked out. When each additional person is eliminated, he has the option of choosing a gift from the pile or stealing a gift from another family member.

"The ultimate winner gets to pick whichever one they want," she said.

So, what's up for grabs? Macey said it's usually a competition to see who can bring the best gag gift with their $20 spending limit.

"I try to look for something new and original that nobody's come up with yet, that will get a laugh," she said. "I normally go to dollar stores or the discount section at Wal-Mart or Target to see what I can find first, or I just scour Amazon for weird gifts."

Some of Macey's past gifts have included high-fiving cat figurines, an engraved garden rock and condoms one year when she was pressed for time. She said she tries to find something useless but funny.

Other family members have been known to bring the same type of gift each year.

"Every year somebody brings a lawn ornament," she said. "I think there's been a lawn squirrel, a lawn turtle ... Oh and a lawn pig in a tutu one year."

Macey said her cousin Harvey is known for bringing Christmas movie-themed gifts.

"One year, he bought a one-year subscription to the jelly of the month club that could be redeemed," she said. "One year, we had the leg lamp from 'The Christmas story.'"

She added, "Somebody always brings a bottle of booze, too."

Some gifts like the jelly of the month subscription and an old '90's boom box are highly sought after, while more practical gifts like laundry detergent and food items never leave the host house. But, whether one takes home the coveted prize or not, Macey said it's all just for fun.

"This is more just for the heck of it," she said.

Unlike other families who do a white elephant exchange instead of buying gifts for everyone, Macey said her family does both. The white elephant exchange is just an addition to the holiday traditions. And, even for the young family members who may not understand all the jokes, Macey said it's a family favorite.

"The girls love it; it's their favorite part of Christmas," she said. When she asked what they were most excited about, they said they were more excited about the white elephant exchange than they were about Santa coming.

"They like seeing the gifts getting opened, but they really like watching all of us and laughing with all of us, even if they don't fully understand," she said. "That's what makes it so fun."

Secret Santa

Valarie Such of Grand Forks has her own family gift exchange tradition. While Macey's family has to get a gift that anyone would like, Such's family members just have to worry about one person.

After Such's mother died last year, they decided to start a secret Santa tradition.

"Before then, (my mom) always made sure everyone got a gift card and a package of homemade goodies to take home, everyone's favorite being 'Gramma June's candy,'" Such said. "With a family that keeps growing -- most of which are adults -- it was time to start a new tradition."

They decided a secret Santa tradition or a name draw was the best solution. After Thanksgiving dinner, the 15 to 20 names of adults and children go into one bowl and everyone draws one person who they'll be a secret Santa to.

"It's a fun and cost effective way to make sure everyone has something under the tree..." Such said.

They set a limit of $10 to $15. Sometimes they go over that limit for the children, she said. "But it's fairly easy to shop for the adults and stay within the budget."

Last year, Such was her sister's secret Santa. She bought a thermos that looked like a coffee pot with a handle, and inside, she included a little gift card to her sister's favorite coffee shop.

Such said they try to buy practical gifts for the adults and special toys for the children that will make their faces light up.

After the big dinner on Christmas day, they gather around for the big exchange.

"Last year, I hosted so we all gathered in the living room in a huge circle," she said. "One by one we each opened our gifts and passed around what we got."

Although the secret Santa exchange is a new tradition for the Such family, she said it's one they'll hold on it.

Whether it's a Secret Santa or white elephant exchange, Macey said the most important part of the holidays is spending time and sharing laughs with family.

Maki covers arts and entertainment and life and style. Call her at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1122 or send e-mail to, follow her on Twitter at @jasminemaki23 or see her blog at

Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
(701) 780-1122