This is a challenging year for our favorite or at least traditional holiday activities. The Secret Santa gift exchange comes to mind. You know, where your group draws names, without revealing whose name they chose, selects a gift for that person within a designated range, and at a party unwraps the gift while trying to guess the name of the giver. This has been a yearly activity for most offices, clubs, and social groups (like neighbors). It saves on having to buy gifts for everyone, it’s the highlight of most holiday parties, and it’s a lot of fun. This year, working from home and suspended group outings require some creativity to carry on this timely tradition. The solution: going virtual!
While it sounds good theory, creating a virtual event that lives up to expectations can be stressful. No fears, with a little planning (the key to reducing anxiety in most things), your Virtual Secret Santa Exchange can impress, not stress! In its simplest form, a Virtual Secret Santa exchange is 4 elements (low Stress-O-Meter reading):
- Choosing a Date/Time and Budget
- Drawing Names
- Sending the gifts
- Exchange gifts via Zoom or Web Conferencing Call
The impress quotient comes in the details! You can take this from a “Fine” to “Wow” virtual event with minimal effort. Let’s do a deep dive into the four components. I’ve also included bonus tips to amp the Impress Quotient, increase participation, and fortify the fun factor.
Choosing a date, budget, and theme
This year, choosing a date is a lot less complicated as this holiday season doesn’t include many parties or events, and few people are traveling for the holidays. Holding your exchange during the day requires the least amount of effort. It also cuts down on some of the fun – you probably don’t want employees drinking! Happy hour or evening events can include a little more “fun” as no one is expected to go back to work. However, as everyone is at home, scheduling around dinner times/bedtimes can be problematic for families. The typical gift range is around $15 – $25 (including mail/shipping costs). This has been a rough financial year for many folks. Allow people the option to opt-out without judgment. While I love the challenge and creativity of the ridiculously low limit of $5, gifts need to be shipped or mailed this year. This could likely exceed the gift’s cost, making it impractical.
The theme of the event dictates the dress code. You want to get folks out of their usual work-at-home attire and into something more festive. You can never go wrong with an Ugly Sweater theme – offering a prize for the ugliest sweater. As everyone is at home, you can play on that and make it a Holiday PJ Party (if this a work event, clear it with HR.) Or go formal attire. It’s probably been a long time since anyone has really dressed up. Encourage party attire: sequins, long dresses, suit & tie – the whole shebang. The goal is to make this FUN and forget that we can’t be together in person. Themes go a long way in accomplishing this mission.
I highly recommend using one of the many free apps. (Google: virtual secret Santa). These apps can include a Wish List feature (providing you suggestions or guidance), email or text functions, and budget setters. Another cool feature to look for is the ability to prevent parings – if you have a group with “personality issues.” The free apps usually limit the number of participants. However, most paid upgrades are under a dollar. An app will go along way to keep your Stress-O-Meter on low while rating high on the Impress-O-Meter. If you want to go low tech, assign someone to act as the exchange coordinator. Have them assign names. This option will increase everyone’s stress level as it’s very subjective. I recommend using a free app!
Mailing and shipping are the major drawbacks of a virtual event. It’s not cheap! (These costs should be factored into the maximum limit of the gift). USPS flat rate shipping for a small box is around $8, and it’s about $15 for a medium box. Of course, gift cards can be sent for a stamp price or free online, but lack creativity UNLESS you personalize a gift card to the recipient’s interests or favorite restaurant/store. The Wish list feature on the Santa app can be of real help! You might want to suggest that everyone uses Amazon Prime for free shipping – although you’ll still have to pay the $3.99 gift bag fee (again, that cost should be factored in the gift budget, so it’s not extra). It’s a little challenging to keep the sender’s name off the gift receipt, but it can be done. It will be slightly different for every vendor, and you may have to do a little research, but it’s worth it to keep the sender’s name a secret. A big part of the fun is guessing who was the gifter.
Hosting via Zoom or Web Conferencing
Choose whatever technology works best for everyone. If this event is not a work event (like for a social group or club), you may need to send everyone a link to download the software. Don’t let a technical glitch as simple as not getting on the call compromise the event! If you have some technically challenged participants – do a test run or trial call the day before. Seriously, for non-work events, where you’re not all on the same network, you really do want to confirm that each person is capable of logging on to the necessary app. If it can go wrong, it will – prepare ahead! Send the link multiple times in different emails. Send it directly from the source when you schedule the event. Include it in a “party” online invitation. Send it in a reminder email the day of the event with the link, time, and theme/dress code.
Expand on your dress theme by adding a matching food theme. Just because we aren’t together doesn’t mean we aren’t going to eat. What kind of party doesn’t include food? There are a couple of ways to do this. The first way has everyone creating and serving their own menu. Offer a prize for the best menu and/or the best (virtual) food presentation. This is the lower stress option. The other option requires some advance planning. When the theme is announced, everyone submits a recipe that fits the category—the group votes on what recipes make it to the party menu. Everyone makes and serves the same food, and a prize is given for the best recipe. An Ugly Sweater party can feature a retro or throw-back menu. A menu of quirky foods is also appropriate for an Ugly Sweater theme. Your best friend, Google, can be a great source of ideas (Google: ugly sweater party menu ideas). A pajamas themed party can feature breakfast foods. A formal theme lends itself to “fancy” appetizers.