Here Are 39 Refreshingly Clever Family Gift Exchange Ideas

Last Updated on November 5, 2020

Tired of drawing names for the annual Christmas gift exchange? Try one of these 39 (updated for 2020 to…) 46 ingenious family gift exchange ideas.

Drawing names for the family gift exchange… again… *sigh*

Your family* is too big to get everyone a Christmas gift, and it’s been that way for quite some time. So long, in fact, that everyone is pretty much bored to death of the ol’ “drawing names for the family gift exchange” ordeal.

*Or office, etc

So why not spice up this holiday season with something a little more clever, a little more affordable, a little more fun, a little more meaningful, or even a little more… tricksy?

Hmmmm….. sounds intriguing. Read on!

39 Ingenious Alternative Gift Exchange Ideas

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1. A Gift for All

Instead of the usual gift exchange, pitch in together on an experience: a special event or getaway you all can enjoy as a family.

Go big and rent a beach house or ski cabin for a weekend, or keep it budget-friendly by going to a movie at the theaters, ice skating, or to a local holiday event.

Other ideas include concerts, theme parks, laser tag, a sports event, a fun class like ballroom dancing, or rent out a family fun center for an afternoon.

More: 50+ Experience Gifts That Create Memories

2. Make a List

Have each person make a list of 10 things under X amount of dollars that they actually would like to receive as a gift.

This takes away the stress of guessing whether or not they already have or would like a particular item.

Plus it keeps a bit of mystery since they will only receive one or maybe two items off the list.

3. Ornament Exchange

This could fall under the later section of “gift category” ideas #22-38, but we thought the idea merited its own heading.

Christmas ornaments are fun. They help create a big part of that warm fuzzy feeling we all love about the holidays.

An ornament gift exchange is a wonderful way to add to everyone’s collection, it’s easy to do, and it doesn’t break the bank.

All you do is say, “Hey everyone, let’s do an ornament gift exchange this year!” Then you buy each other fun, interesting, beautiful, personalized, and/or quirky ornaments to decorate your Christmas trees.

Check out these cute and popular Christmas ornaments.

4. Christmas Cookie Swap

Have everyone bake up their specialty, and bring a tray to the party plus a couple dozen extra to exchange.

Kids love this. You only have to bake one large double batch in order to get a wide variety of holiday treats to take home. Plus it only costs a few dollars to make a couple batches of delicious Christmas cookies. So this is a very affordable option when budgets are tight.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Find a great Christmas cookie recipe
  • Bake enough for each family unit to have a plate of 6 or 12
  • Put them on a paper holiday plate with plastic wrap
  • If, say, 5 groups bring cookies, bring five plates of your cookies, then leave with five different plates
  • Enjoy at your leisure

5. Yankee Swap

This is the classic gift-exchange party game. It allows you to avoid having to get a lot of little, inexpensive gifts for everyone and instead choose one nice quality gift. Better gifts are given, and usually at a lower cost.

Here’s how it works. Everyone buys a gift for a set dollar amount – $15 or $25 or $50. They bring it to your get-together wrapped.

Then everyone chooses a number from a hat. The first person (who gets #1) chooses a gift to open. The second person can “steal” the gift from the first, or open a new one. The third person can choose any of the open gifts, or open a new one.

Each gift can only be stolen a set number of times; most often, each item is limited to 2 or 3 steals. If a person has a gift stolen from them, they get open a new present. After all the gifts are open, the first person (who didn’t have the option to steal at the beginning) can choose any gift to steal that isn’t already at the maximum number of steals.

6. White Elephant Gift Exchange

Same as the Yankee Swap, but with used items you find around the house that you no longer want (or fun stuff from a thrift store). The key is to get everyone on the same page.

In my experience it works best when everyone is clear on the idea that “one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.”

Meaning, of course, that you should bring an item that is unique or odd or interesting, perhaps usable, that someone else might conceivably want.

If it’s total garbage, then no one will care. And if some people bring nice, new, store-bought gifts while others bring weird eclectic stuff, then those who brought the garage-sale-worthy items will inevitably feel bad that they didn’t bring something nicer. So just make sure everyone understands the concept.

7. Secret Santa

Another classic. Draw names from a hat at the beginning of December. (Or use an online tool like this one.) Use the month to figure out the perfect gift or a few small, creative gifts.

Then, one by one at your family gathering, reveal your secret Christmas buddy and give your gifts.

This is a fun idea because you have to be creative in trying to figure out what “your” person wants, without giving away that you are their Secret Santa.

Check out our custom engraved tumblers, the perfect gift exchange gift idea!!

8. Send a Rotating Gift Box

This is an ingenious Christmas gift exchange idea for family members that live in different parts of the country. Make up a special box – maybe a wooden crate, a cute holiday gift box, or something you decorate yourself – and send it to a family member or friend in a different state. They then put a gift in and send it back.

For multiple people, here’s how it would work. Say you have three friends or family members in different parts of the country. You would put 3 gifts inside (one for each person), and send it to the first recipient. They would take out the gift addressed to them, put one of their 3 gifts inside, and send it to the next person. Around and around it goes!

9. Regift the Good Stuff

Have everyone go in on a collection of great, top-notch gifts that are durable or reusable. (If you can’t afford it all at once, slowly build up to it.) This allows each recipient or family to use the item for a full year.

Next Christmas, swap it up! You won’t have to buy new gifts every year, and everyone gets something really nice each and every holiday.

Here are a few options that will work for this sort of upscale or extra-meaningful regifting (the list goes big/pricey down to smaller/affordable):

10. Regift the Worst Stuff

Have everyone bring the very worst gift they ever received, and pass it on to a new owner. Then do it every year! Introduce new items as the old ones get lost or broken.

Take a vote on the “best” worst gift each year, and the “winner” gets to wear a terrible Christmas hat.

No doubt you will start all sorts of fun traditions. There will be that one excruciating gift that that everyone loves to hate; there will be stories of old gifts from days of yore that have long since disappeared; and no one will be disappointed because nobody will expect anything even remotely decent. A real winner!

Related: Nostalgic 90s Toys That Make Perfect Gifts

11. Give to Others, Together

Instead of giving gifts to each other, invest in a child or family in need by giving through a charitable organization such as Compassion International.

We recommend this organization because they are highly rated by independent charity evaluators, which provides confidence knowing that the majority of what you give is actually going to the child or family in need.

Also, they have an excellent online gift catalog where you can make one-time donations towards specific needs such as a baby’s medical care, dental kits for kids, chickens to help feed a family, emergency food and water, HIV/AIDS care, and more.

You probably have charities and causes that you and your family are passionate about. Band together to make a donation to something important, then enjoy a bountiful meal and holiday celebration together.

Related: 15 Family Volunteer Opportunities for All Ages

12. Musical Chairs Gift Exchange Game

This idea works equally well for kids and adults. We’d advise doing a separate one for each. Unless your family loves stories like, Remember that time Timmy went to the ER on Christmas for a broken rib cage?

With the kids, you can give out a gift as soon as someone gets “out,” which should eliminate any ruffled feathers or hurt feelings. After all, what kid was ever disappointed at getting a gift before someone else?

For the adults, you can do the same thing. They’ll just enjoy the competition of jousting for a chair. Or you could let the musical chairs decide the order of picking a gift. You’ll come up with tons of creative ideas for gift exchanging with this one.

13. Musical Gifts

In this version, the gifts get passed around while everyone remains in their seats.

Packages are passed around in a circle, from person to person, while a holiday song or Christmas carol is played. When the music stops, whatever gift each person is holding is the gift they get!

You can do it all in one go, with all the gifts moving around. If you prefer to make it last longer, do one, three, or any other number of gifts at a time, then those who got a gift sit out the next round.

14. Christmas Carnival

You know those Halloween carnivals, the ones often put on by churches for kids and called a “Harvest Festival” to avoid the stigma of Halloween?

They’re actually pretty fun, full of little county-fair-type games like ring toss, ball toss, shooting hoops, “fishing” with a clothespin fishing pole, and more.

Try setting up your holiday gift exchange with a bunch of booths where the kids (and adults!) can win prizes by winning a bunch of carnival games.

Maybe give out candy or small token prizes for each game, then as each person completes all games (use a punch card, or just have them go around the room) they get to choose a gift. Use your imagination for tons of kid-centered Yuletide fun!

Here are some easy and portable ideas:

15. Holiday Trivia Gift Exchange

If your family is big on trivia, turn your gift exchange into a trivia competition. Set up two or three teams, or compete individually. There are many ways to pass out the gifts:

  • As each person gets a correct answer, they get to choose a wrapped present, and if they get more than one question right they can pass off their gift pick to another person of their choice (or steal/swap a gift).
  • Competing individually for points, the leading point-getter chooses the gift first, 2nd place second, etc.
  • Teams compete together and write down their answers. Questions can have the same or different point values based on how difficult they are.
  • The leading team at the end of the first quarter can choose their wrapped gifts, and the leading team at halftime can choose and/or steal from the first. Everyone opens at the end of the third quarter, and the victorious team at the very end can steal opened gifts from other teams.

16. Cobweb Party

This one is fun to set up and fun to play. Works well with name-drawing. Have each giver tie their gift to a ball of colorful yarn (make sure each one is at least 100 yards), then hide the gift and trail the yarn throughout the house.

When everyone is done, the house should look like a giant mess of cobwebs.

Then the giver hands off the end of the yarn to the recipient, and the race is on! Works best (i.e., craziest) when everyone is chasing their yarn trail at the same time.

17. Treasure Hunt

You can have each person do this individually, or have all the gifts in one place for the whole family to find.

Have a series of instructions, clues, or riddles that lead to the next place, ending with the ultimate treasure trove.

18. Spin the Bottle Gift Exchange

A family-friendly take on the classic game. Everyone sits around in a circle and takes turns spinning the bottle.

When it lands on you, you get to go pick out your gift – or steal it!

19. Hot Potato

Just like the popular party game, but use a gift instead. Everyone sits in a circle, and passes around a gift. Whenever the music stops, the person holding the gift gets it.

Or, to encourage passing it quickly, the person who last held the gift gets it. For more fun with larger groups, do two or three gifts at a time.

You can add more rules, too. For instance, if you drop it, you have to sit out that round. Or those who already have a gift can throw balls of wrapping paper at the participants to distract them.

20. Gift Auction

There are many ways to incorporate an auction into a gift exchange. For adults, you can have a Vegas-style game night and then individuals can use their “winnings” to bid on gifts – opened or unopened. Or do a cash auction and have the proceeds go to a charity or to pay for a gift for the whole family.

Set up a basic guideline beforehand – are we bidding loose change for little $5-15 gifts, or is it going to be big money for premium gifts? Do you earn and use fake money from carnival/party/card games, or is everyone supposed to buy in with $5 or whatever?

For an all-ages version, have some carnival games or competitions where 1st through 5th place gets tickets, poker chips, or change to use in the auction. Trivia and simple party games also work well for this: hot potato, musical chairs, a dance-off, talent show, ring toss, etc.

21. Left or Right

Everyone sits in a circle, holding the gift that they brought to the exchange. (Specify beforehand a dollar amount and if there should be a particular theme or type.)

The moderator will begin reading a story, and every time the word “left” occurs in the story, everyone passes their gift to the left. Every time the word “right” comes up… you get the picture.

If you’re looking for a story, we have FIVE free ones, including personalized ones (where you put in your family’s or coworker’s names), holiday themed ones for family, friends, or office parties, and even a non-holiday one for birthday parties or whatever. Check them out here.

Of course you can also come up with your own story, which is half the fun anyways. Just make sure to count the number of lefts and rights so that people don’t end up with the same gift they brought!

This is one of the more entertaining family gift exchange ideas. You’ll be glad you did it!

Read more: Left/Right Game Gift Exchange PLUS Free Story Ideas

22-38. Choose a Gift Category

Food gifts only.

Craft brew, whiskey, and/or wine gifts only (uh, for adults, obviously).

Last year you were only allowed to give experiences, like gift certificate to a golf course or tickets to the theater; this year, you can only give a subscription box.

Everyone gives three used books, each from a different genre.

Gifts that make people laugh; and the gift-giver that gets the biggest laugh gets a prize. You get the idea.

My family did “used” aka thrift store gifts only one year, and it was one of the most unique and memorable Christmases we ever had together. It was exhausting, with lots of yard sale, thrift store, and antique mall visits, but we all had a blast.

You could have everyone write down their favorite movies, and all the gifts have to relate to that person’s favorite films. For instance, a Han Shot First t-shirt for a Star Wars buff, a Sharknado triple feature for someone who loves Jaws, a sled for the Orson Welles/Citizen Kane fan, something that says “You Go Glen Coco” for the person who constantly quotes Mean Girls.

Or do the same idea but with music – band merch, song quotes engraved onto a plaque or pilsner glass, vinyl copies of favorite albums, etc.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of category ideas to get you started:

39. Rotate Gift Exchange Ideas

Lastly, consider rotating through several of these Christmas gift exchange ideas each year.

Your whole family will love having something different to look forward to each year, and if you limit it to 2-4 different exchange types then you will still maintain something of a “tradition.”

Updated for 2020: Even More Gift Exchange Ideas!

40. Santa’s Grab Bag

This one is super simple. Get a nice big bag – this classic Santa’s bag is perfect, or just use a big black plastic bag – put all the gifts inside, and have people draw them out, one by one.

41. Pakkeleg

This is a family gift exchange game from Denmark, which apparently everyone there plays during the holiday season. Warning: It can bring out the worst!

All the gifts are placed in a pile. Go around the room, with each person taking turns rolling dice. When someone rolls a 6, they pick a gift. Repeat until all gifts are taken. (And yes, some people might get more than one, leaving others out.)

Next, the process is repeated, but this time people who roll a 6 can steal a gift. Agree on a set amount of time beforehand (longer time for more participants). Once the time is up, the game is over and everyone can open their presents.

This works best with silly and/or inexpensive gifts (think, dollar store).

42. Gift Guessing Game

Make sure all the presents get wrapped. One at a time, each person holds their gift for everyone to see and people guess what it is. Slowly give out clues, starting with obscure riddle-type clues and getting easier, until someone wins the gift and gets to open it.

43. 21 Questions

Exactly like the Gift Guessing Game, but using Yes and No questions. Whoever guesses the gift correctly gets it; if no one guesses it, the gift giver gets a prize.

With both of these, you’ll obviously want to come up with a a way to make sure everyone gets a gift. Plus you want people to stay interested and involved, so don’t do it where anyone who has a gift sits out. Rather, anyone who correctly guesses a second gift can choose to give away their gift in favor of the second one, or perhaps steal another gift.

44. Gift Train

This is a great way to do a long-distance gift exchange with a group of friends or family members. Similar to #8, but instead of rotating gifts in and out of the package, everyone involved sends a package with the same number of gifts as there are people in the exchange.

When the package arrives, simply pull out a gift, then send the package on to the next address.

45. Christmas Carol Singalong

This one is like a mashup of Christmas caroling and trivia.

As with musical chairs, arrange everyone in a circle, play a Christmas song, then have the gift passed around.

Whoever is holding the gift when you stop the song has to finish the lyric. If they can, they get to open the gift. If not, the gift is passed clockwise until someone can correctly recite the song’s lyrics.

46. Ugly Christmas Sweater Gift Exchange

The ugly Christmas sweater thing is getting a little out of hand, IMHO. You can’t find them for $5 at a thrift store anymore; instead, there are only new ones available at the store for a premium. If a thrift store gets an *actual* old, ugly Christmas sweater, it’s labeled “vintage” and gets put on display at the front of the store… along with a high price tag.

Oh well. But if you’re into the ugly Christmas sweater thing, do it as an exchange. Since by now everyone has one or two in their closets, you can just swap and reuse them. Or go for the weirdest, funniest, craziest ones you can find online.

Each year they always come up with new stuff to put on these ugly sweaters, so you might as well just lean into it!

The Anti-Gift Exchange: Let Everyone Off the Hook

Wrapping up,* one last thing to consider is this: Skip the gift exchange this year.

*See what we did there

Sometimes, all the materialistic gift insanity might get to be a bit much. Yep. We get it. (Your family will too.) Remember that you’re free to bow out and do something a little more personal instead.

Here are some ideas to help you get out of the annual gift exchange rut. We’ve already hit on several along these lines above (doing a family event, cookie swap, volunteering, etc) but we’ll put them all together here, plus a few more.

For the Family Gathering

Be sure to send everyone an email or chat message to explain your thoughts. Then you can suggest in place of the gift swap:

  • Have a family gathering with a potluck
  • Do a cookie swap (#4, above)
  • Go sledding; bring hot chocolate
  • Volunteer as a family (#11, above, and here)
  • Watch a Christmas movie together
  • Read a classic Christmas story together
  • Do the Christmas carnival (#14), but with all-DIY games
  • Have everyone pitch in a few bucks to get a nice gift for each child in the family, or to get a little grab-bag of goodies. Let’s face it, the kids should get presents!
  • Get one gift for the whole family – like a board game or a silly Christmas game – rather than gifts for each person

For Individuals

Contact your loved ones individually and let them know that you’re stepping away from the materialistic holiday insanity this year. Let them know that, instead, you want to take them out to lunch, coffee, or ice cream and spend some quality time together. Or cook a nice dinner for them. Something simple, yet personal.

The same thing goes for the kids. You can take them out one at a time, or take a group of siblings (their parents will probably appreciate the free babysitting!). If you’re on a budget, take them to the park or another fun, free activity. Maybe get an ice cream cone or hot cocoa. You can also do bigger, splashier activities with the kids, like taking them to a bounce house, laser tag, fun center, or arcade. It’s up to you!

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39 Ingenious Alternative Gift Exchange Ideas

Do you have any additional gift exchange ideas to add? Share in the comments below!

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