Whether it’s your book club, far-flung family, a mandatory work “party,” or a last-minute shindig with new friends, mixing up the parameters of a holiday gift exchange can inspire creativity on the part of the givers and fresh anticipation for the receivers. These eight gift exchange ideas are sure to be conversation-starters.
3 Things to Do Before Starting the Gift Exchange
Before we get to the good stuff, let’s set a few parameters/guidelines to make the gift exchange work at its best.
1. Set a Spending Limit
This makes sure that everyone is working with the same expectations and no one feels awkward. It also encourages creative shopping!
Be considerate of those who may not have a lot of extra disposable income – particularly around the holidays – when you create this limit.
2. Choose Your Structure
How you decide to structure your exchange will impact the tone of the overall exchange and the ideal spots for hosting.
Is this going to be a gift exchange where names are selected in advance so that everyone has a specific person in mind when they are shopping? If so, make sure to set that up.
If you choose names in advance, then the gifts will be more specific to the recipient. This increases the likelihood that everyone will leave with something of interest or value to them.
This more structured exchange of pre-selected names is appropriate for a restaurant or other mixed-public space.
Or, is this going to be a gift exchange where everyone brings a gift, sets it in the center of the room, draws a number, and then chooses a gift from the center (or trades with one already opened) in numerical order?
If you opt for this structure, then you create a set-up that is more playful and feisty (depending on the characters in your group).
An exchange that relies on choosing and swapping, and thus a bit more movement and potential shouting, will do better in someone’s home, an outdoor venue, or another private place that can be rented.
3. Pick your theme
A gift exchange doesn’t necessarily need a theme. It’s not mandatory, but a theme contributes a fun vibe to the activity. A theme can encourage creative gift-giving. A theme keeps the gift-opening time of the activity interesting – each gift is a chance to see how the theme was interpreted and how the resulting gift will be a good match for the recipient.
Now we can get to the good part. If you have decided to use a theme for your gift exchange, consider one of these eight ideas. Some of them I have used with my family and others are untested ideas. But, if they fit with the vibe and direction of your group, then go for it!
Eight Ideas for an Epic Gift Exchange
1. “As Seen on TV”
Oh the hilarity! We actually used the giant toenail clippers we received from this exchange with my family—just not the magnifying glass and light. I’m not sure that my sister ever used the putting green for when you’re on the toilet, or that my dad used the pop-up hot-dog cooker, but it was an entertaining evening.
As an added benefit, many of the “As Seen on TV” products are gender-neutral so you can use this type of exchange for mixed groups.
2. Gifts representing the state or country you live in
We tried this type of exchange at a time when we had family living in multiple states of the United States. When we did this with my family, we had gifts from Texas, North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama, and Virginia floating around. We exchanged books, music, food, and other novelties.
Plus, there was always some sort of story attached. Some were stories of difficulty finding a good representation of their state, some were stories of how it had become someone’s favorite “thing,” since they moved there, and others were wild stories of how the gift actually made sense with the theme.
(Need help with a geography-themed gift, consider one of these gifts for map-lover.)
3. Board game exchange
If the group you’re exchanging with is a competitive group or just enjoys game nights, this might be a great option. The choices seem to be endless. Be sure to specify if you include card games.
There are several bonuses with this option!
Bonus: Pick a game and play it with your group! Gift and entertainment settled in one activity – win-win!
Bonus: If you want to combine it with the “re-gift” option below, then you could have everyone bring a once-favorite board game (in good condition and with all the pieces), wrap it up, and give it a fresh life in someone else’s repertoire. That also makes this an great eco-friendly option and a frugal-friendly choice.
Bonus: For one more bonus, this could be an amazing way to get families or children involved. Maybe the adults want to have a different gift exchange and the kids decide to have a board game exchange. Get everyone involved in the action!
4. Theme exchange
Pick a theme, such as “fair trade,” “something blue,” “light,” or “go green,” and unwrap some unlikely interpretations.
I remember having a conversation with someone about a new building that he had visited. He kept referring, with amazement, to the green materials and green toilet water and a host of other green observations he had made. Finally, I put the conversation together to realize that he was talking about an eco-friendly building and using “green” as the adjective instead.
Imagine the gifts that could emerge from a gift exchange about a similarly open-ended phrase or idea. Funny interpretations with the right group of people could be especially memorable.
5. Holiday decoration exchange
You can make these tacky or nice. You can do a blind swap or draw names. Either way everyone takes something home to appreciate this year and the next Christmas season.
Obviously, this is not a great option for people who live in the same home or space. Also, be sensitive to your group’s demographics. Not everyone may celebrate this holiday or celebrate in the same way.
But if you have enough styles and decorating priorities in your midst, the outcome could again be quite entertaining.
6. Gift card swap
Okay, this may seem like a cop-out, but I’ve not met anyone yet who hates getting gift cards.
As long as there’s at least one desirable card you can have a group swapping and maneuvering to the last second. For a different spin on it, select gift cards from local restaurants so everyone goes away with a new restaurant to try out!
Definitely put an amount limit on this one – and be sensitive to those who may not have a lot of discretionary income at this time of year. With the limit then everyone gets the same value in return but hopefully with a new place to try at some point in upcoming year.
7. Book exchange
I mean, you had to see this one coming, right? I write a lot about books, and I think they can be great conversation-starters for groups that mix old and new faces. In this exchange, everyone wraps a new copy of one of their favorite books and the swapping begins.
This is a good option for a group of relatively new faces. The natural discussions around why a book is a favorite could serve as an icebreaker in an indirect way.
Plus, if you’re looking for a family-friendly or kid-friendly option, this is a great one to try!
(For great kid book recommendations, depending on ages, check out this list of picture book biographies to find a child’s next hero OR for find a chapter book or middle grade book for older kids!)
8. Re-gift Swap
Go ahead: make it okay to re-gift.
Participants bring in an item that is in almost-new condition to put in the pile for an exchange.
My husband and I participated in a gift exchange early in our marriage with a re-gifting vibe. There were some truly hideous and awful presents. There were some gifts that were nice but that the giving person didn’t want or couldn’t use them. And there were some gifts, like ours, that were re-gifted because of a surplus.
When we were first married, my husband and I received three fondue sets. Three! So, we wrapped up an unused one and added it to the swap center.
The bargaining heated up when the fondue set was unwrapped! At this moment we saw that re-gifting exchanges reach their best levels when at least one gift is desirable.
Keep that in mind! Tacky gifts are funny (and you definitely want some of those), but if you want to get the begging and swapping and negotiating up to peak, hysterical levels, then make sure at least one gift is something a lot of people want.
Gift Exchange Ideas “Wrap-Up”
Pun totally intended. #sorrynotsorry Enjoy celebrating with one of these gift exchange ideas! Have fun, laugh a little (or a lot), and make some memories.
If 2020 taught us anything about the importance of relationships in our lives, it should be that people are always more important than stuff. In this case, use the stuff to create entertaining memories with people. You may find a new friend or make a deeper connection with someone you’ve known all your life. In the end, that’s the real gift.