fun gift exchange themes

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I have just posted an updated list of gift exchange themes here, based on this post and all your many wonderful comments and suggestions!

I have four brothers and one sister.  We are all married, and one of my brothers has a daughter who is also married.  With our mom and dad added in, that makes 16 adults for our yearly Christmas gift exchange.  For many years, when only some of us were married, we drew names and bought presents that way.  But that system ended up being rather impersonal: we would ask what the recipient would like, we would buy it, and then quietly exchange gifts when we arrived at Mom’s house on Christmas Day.  I, for one, wanted something more fun, if not more meaningful.  I missed the Christmases growing up where we carefully purchased little gifts for each other and watched everyone take turns opening their gifts on Christmas morning.  It was so much fun to see what EVERYONE got, not just our own stack of gifts.  I wanted our adult gift exchange to have the same sort of impact–something that would be more of an event, that would focus on spending time together and enjoying each of the selections.

We eventually decided on having an anonymous gift exchange.  We would each bring a gift based on a different theme each year and then play a game to determine who would win each gift.  We always state a budget up front (generally we keep it in the $25-$30 range for our family, but you could adapt it to your own comfort level), and have the rule that gifts can be brought as a couple or an individual.  You just take home the same number as you bring.  We have also tried to avoid gift cards in this exchange (unless we choose a gift card theme, which we haven’t yet).  The games we play have varied over the years.  Originally I created a board game that we refined for several years, but after a while we changed it up with other types of games (I’ll discuss the exchange game ideas in another post).

In this post I wanted to talk about some of the theme ideas that have worked well for us (as well as some that were a bit underwhelming).

By far, our most popular theme (everyone really enjoyed this) was “As Seen On TV.”  It was a theme that even my kids liked shopping for.  Two of my children were pre-readers that year, but as we would go to stores they helped me spot the iconic red label as we considered our many, many options.  In fact, I don’t know that anyone actually ordered off a television commercial since As Seen On TV products are widely available at so many stores and at every price point.  Some of my siblings found great deals and combined several lower cost items into one gift, and others featured just one thing.  One tip I can offer is to check online review sites (epinions, Amazon, etc.) to find out if the products really work as they say.  But then again, part of the fun of this theme is just to experiment with some of the wacky products that are offered these days.

My personal favorite theme was “Homemade.”  Some of my siblings, however, felt like it was too much work.  You would have to decide if this is a theme that would work for your group.  I was delighted with the variety of gift ideas that my family came up with.  I made a jean quilt similar to the one at left.  My husband made some of his custom Star Wars figure Christmas ornaments.  My sister created a sign featuring her artistic mosaic work.  And one of the most unexpected offerings was my sister-in-law’s homemade marinade (my brother threw in a few thick-cut steaks to go with it)!  I loved the personal touch that was inherent in this theme.  Yes, it was a bit more work, but I thought it was worth it!

Another theme we tried was “Food” (every gift had to have at least one thing that was real food–the rest could be related to food).  For example, you could have a selection of cheeses with a nice cheese slicer.  Or ingredients to make cookies along with cookie sheets.  I had high hopes for this category, but it turned out to be a bit of a dud for our family.  It was fine, but we didn’t exhibit some of the fun and creativity of some of our other themes.

My family, as a whole, is blessed with green thumbs, so we have had a couple of themes centered around “Yard and Garden.”  We always seem to appreciate new plants, pots, or garden tools.  One year our theme was “Big Box Store,” where our gifts could be anything that came from a Big Box Store like Home Depot, Lowes or Costco.  This theme didn’t mean we HAD to buy yard or garden related items, but we seemed to lean towards those kinds of presents anyway.

Recently we chose the theme of “Survivor,” which is essentially an Emergency Preparedness concept.  Lanterns, flashlights, batteries, first aid kits, food storage, or any other gift that could help us be more prepared in an emergency would be appropriate for this theme.  My family all lives in earthquake country, so we know how important it is to have supplies and kits in place for when the need arises.  Most of these items can also be used in more minor emergencies as well, so this is a very practical theme, and may not have the “fun” factor that some are looking for in gift giving.  My family likes practical.

One year, one of my brothers had completed a major house addition and had a lot of blank walls in his home to fill up, so he requested the theme “On The Wall.”  The gifts that year were anything you could hang on a wall (indoors or out): pictures, frames, clocks, decorative pieces, barometers, lights, shelves, vinyl decals, shadow boxes, plate racks, etc.).  I know you can also hang television sets on the wall these days, but that would be quite a bit out of our budget!

My family grew up playing lots of board games and putting together jigsaw puzzles, so it was a natural fit to have a “Games and Puzzles” theme.  Some of us went traditional with our choices, but a lot of us bought newer games to try.  This was a really fun category, which also led to even more enjoyment when we got together to try out some of the gifts.

I am super excited about our theme this year.  We decided to have a “Color” theme, but we couldn’t agree on one color among us, so we opted for a pattern: “Stripes.”  It doesn’t matter what the gift is this year as long as it features stripes, in any color combination.   I can’t wait to see what my family comes up with for this category.

There may have been another theme from past years that I have missed in this recounting, but those are all I can remember right now.  However, I do have a list of themes that we have discussed but haven’t used yet:

  • Something “refurbished or repurposed” (find or buy something old and fix it up in some way that makes it new or different).  This is a sort of semi-homemade category.  Related ideas would be to have a “Garage Sale,” “Freecycle” or “Craigslist” theme.
  • Something “nostalgic.”  This could be anything that reminds you of times past (your own childhood, or even before your own time).  It could be something vintage, or it could be something new that reminds you of something old.  However you want to interpret it.
  • Time related.”  There are tons of cool clocks, watches, barometers, etc. to choose from that would make a fun theme.  Who doesn’t need another clock?  Or perhaps you could come up with some other kind of gift to fit this theme–perhaps a time-travel novel?
  • How about a “Religious” theme?  If you are a church going family or group, like we are, then this might be a fun category.  You could find books, music, jewelry, art or even scriptures as gifts.  Additionally, there are many nativity themed Christmas items that could also be appropriate.
  • My book club does a book gift exchange every year.  We also like to choose themes, such as “a classic we haven’t read,” “a children’s book,” “one of our favorite books,” “something from the dollar table at the local used book store,” “something we would like to read,” etc.  These ideas could be adapted to your group if you have a lot of readers.
  • Have you noticed the extensive variety of boxed gifts the stores put out at Christmastime?  I have thought that could be a fun and easy exchange theme: choose a pre-made gift basket or gift box of any kind–nuts, popcorn, candy, mugs, scarves, chocolates, spices, ties, pajamas, candles, ribbons, frames, ornaments, scents, car related, and on and on.  You could make your own gift baskets as well.
  • One year I also had the idea to have a theme like “Long or Fat, or Hard to Wrap,” but my family shot me down on that one.  My idea was that you had to choose a gift that was big and awkard–the kind that is either too pointy or too bulky to wrap nicely or too large to fit in a standard sized gift bag.

I hope these ideas inspire you to start your own gift exchange tradition in your family, or to think of new and unusual themes to add a sense of fun to the activity, as well as make it more memorable.  Happy gifting!

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33 responses »

  1. This is the best post I’ve read on Christmas gift themes. I have never done this and my sister-in-law suggested it this year, so thank you for posting fun ideas that I can relate to!

    Happy Holidays!!!

    • Thanks. Every year I have looked online for ideas to supplement our themes and could never find what I was looking for, so I thought it was time I shared what we had been doing. I’m glad it helped you!

  2. We did the “As seen on TV” and it was a great success . . we have also talked about ” must be purchased at a truck stop” (since we have several truck drivers in the family) but I think this year I am asking for everyone to bring a gift that starts with the first letter of their name . . . then we will do some kind of a game where gifts can be stolen or exchanged . . . our only issue is we do it on Christmas Eve and the night always ends too soon.

  3. We have also done themes for the past 5 years. We did the gift that starts with the first letter of the persons name, a food theme, a color theme – the gift had to have either red or green in it, and a travel theme. We are going to try the As seen on TV this year. I thought of a “smelly” theme – the gift must have some type of scent, or an animal theme, but those were both shot down. We also tell everyone the gift must stay below $20. Since we have been celebrating with a theme, the pressure of finding the perfect gift is gone. We have never laughed as hard or had as great memories as we have had the past 5 Christmases. It has been wonderful.

    • Ooh, thanks for the additional ideas! This year we are tossing around ideas like “Handle with Care” (to be interpreted as the gifter wishes) or “Aisle 9” (where the item must be purchased from aisle 9 of any store). But I think I’ll put forward some of your ideas to the family this week and see what everyone thinks.
      And you’re right, it takes all the pressure off of gift giving and just makes it fun!

      • I thought the smelly theme would be fun as well! I could use some help coming up with office gifts for my husband’s staff. He has 35 people who report to him and for the last 3 years, I have been using themes to pick gifts. His group has many people from different cultures who do not celebrate Christmas, so we try to stay neutral in the gift giving. The first year I did an Italian theme and gave herbed olive oils, a loaf of French bread and small olive oil dipping dishes, I did a snowman theme which was funny because we picked them based on the personalities of the staff. Last year we gave a nutcracker to each employee again matching nutcrackers to personalities. My husband would hold up the nutcracker and have the staff guess who was going to receive it. It was so much fun and everyone had a great time. Many of the staff figured out I am the one to pick the theme and purchase the gifts, so over this year I have been asked how am I going to top last year. I have been racking my brain and can only come up with coffee mugs with a goofy picture of my husband on it…anyone have some other ideas that are not directly related to Christmas? I.e. no elves, reindeer, etc.

      • Instead of coffee, why not tea–that seems even more international. Maybe you could match the tea variety to the personality! Or chocolate: candy bars (the fancy kind, I mean) or truffles, with flavors to suit. Or perhaps a desk-top clock–you could set the time based on country of origin? If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.

      • Valarie, I like the idea of coffee mugs, but maybe geared to the different ethnicity/cultures of the group. You could add some international coffee as well!

  4. Thanks for all the ideas. We have been doing a swap for many years and some people are tired of it…though I love it! We call ours the “Swap Wars” as you might guess it’s a “no holds barred” type of swap! I love the themes and will suggest these for next year’s swap (it would be this year but I know at least ONE of my four sisters has probably already finished her Christmas shopping.)

  5. HI! I thought I already posted a comment, but I will try again. I’m wondering what other games you used to decide how to open and exchange the gifts. I love all the theme ideas! Thanks for sharing your other game ideas!

    • Hi Tricia, your previous post showed up on another of my pages (the striped gift one). As for the games we use, we have done numbers (like a white elephant game), dice (rolling doubles or other number combinations to trade or keep), or a custom board game (choose a card, trade as it says; collect three keep cards and you get what you have in your hands). This year I will make up cards for trading rules (trade with an older sibling, with someone wearing holiday jewelry, with the person sitting across from you, etc.).

  6. I love these! We do a theme each year too, and I am struggling with one for this year. I was thinking of a color theme, like everyone has to bring something orange.

    The “as seen on TV” Christmas idea was fun. A couple others that went well were “staching through the snow.” Everyone had to bring something with a mustache on it. Everyone got pretty creative. And, the Truck Stop Christmas. Everyone had to bring a gift from the truck stop.

  7. My sisters and I have doing this for years. We have done movies, seasons, colors, scrabble (the kids drew scrabble letters for each of us and the gifts had to be from words we could form withour letters, Motown songs (we’re from Detroit)

    • tell me more about this scrabble idea–it sounds awesome! How many letters does each person get? do you have to spell a whole word, or just get close?

  8. I absolutely love all of your ideas here! Our family did a Gift Card theme a couple of years ago because we all have too much “stuff” but we all enjoy eating out. So we decided to each bring a $25 gift card to a sit-down restaurant (no fast food). One year we also did a non-food gift card exchange.
    We specified that if couples chose to bring a gift card per person rather than 1 for the couple, that they had to be to 2 different places. This theme is made even easier to get a variety of different cards because you don’t even have to go to the business itself. Many stores you frequent (department, grocery, etc.) carry a huge variety of gift cards at the checkout. I don’t think we had any duplicates either year.

    In this blog you mention that you created/used a board game to exchange gifts and had used other games that you would later post about. If you posted that info, please let me know where it is. If you didn’t, do you still plan to? Now that I have so many great ideas as to the theme of the gift, I am desperately trying to find/come up with new fun ideas to exchange them.

    • thanks for your comments! We have avoided the gift card theme in the past, but I know it is a great idea, and this year, in fact, we may consider it!
      As for the games post, it is always on my list of things to do because I still have not yet written it up. I really do plan to do it soon. Your request may just be the motivation I need….

    • We use different exchange games each year. There are many websites online that list great ideas, but I am working on my own post regarding games that have worked for us, and others we plan to try…

  9. Our family has been doing this too. The best ones so far have been $20 at the dollar store and books n booze. For that you had to find a book and tie it together with some kind of liquor. I gave a book written by Jimmy Buffet and a bottle of Margaritas. Thanks for your ideas.

  10. I love the all of these ideas! We have a large family so one year we had to come up with one thing we could not do without and buy enough for everyone. We had things like sticky notes, zip ties, honey buns, tea, diet cokes… It was so fun. We were all amazed at all the stuff we had and how we thought about that person when we used the gift.

  11. After very un-fun gift exchanges for decades my family was about to just do away with exchanging gifts, until last year for the first time we had a theme. Had to start off slow with just a couple of rules, a person knew who they were buying for so they got something appropriate for that person, but were not allowed to ask what the person wanted. The theme was 1950’s (the entire decade) movies, the gift could be something from what the movie was about, where it was situated, or just something to do with the title, ex. Singing in the Rain with the gift being a nice umbrella. We kept our usual $30 limit. The gift could include the movie, a picture from it, or the giver could just say what it was from. It was a huge hit!!! But, baby steps, they all wanted to do movies again, I’m looking for a different theme which brought me to this great site.. Share the fun!!

  12. We do this every year as well with the adults in our family. We have done Red/Green; We have rolled the scattergories dice to have a letter that the gift must start with (we’ve done S & F); Food/Drink; Circles. After my dad died we did an “all about dad” theme where each of us brought something that reminded us of him. After that, we decided we wanted mom to be around when we honoured her with choosing gifts related to her, so we told her the theme was “All About Me” and that each person would have a gift about ourselves, when really it was a surprise to her that it was all about her. Last year we each researched our own birthdates and had a gift related to something that happened on that specific date. We have so much fun with it and it forces us to be more engaged in the process of choosing gifts thoughtfully.

  13. Our family has done numerous exchanges thru the years. Buy “one pound” of something, color gift theme, took my dad’s name, Clair, and for 5 consecutive years we bought gifts with the letter, starting with C first, ugly salt and pepper shakers, ugly ornaments, funny tshirts (exchanged names for that). One of the best ones we exchanged names and you had to buy your person an outfit for them to wear at a new years eve party at good will. Then everyone had to model it. Took a group picture as well. Laughed so hard at the getups people came up with.

  14. These are some great suggestions! Our family has been doing our annual “white elephant” for over 10 yrs and we are definitely running out of themes, so these ideas help. We’ve tried entertainment, wellness, travel, first letter of your name, etc. Our game has a twist though, we do a $20 gift PLUS a $20 per person into a pot. Each person draws a number and, in that order, picks/steals a gift. Then at the end of the game, the person that has the corresponding gift number with the pot wins the money (like a lottery-style). It gets extremely competitive and fun, and we’ve now broken the pot prize down to 3 (1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize). It’s a game our entire family looks forward to playing each year!

  15. We started doing this in our family last year. The “As Seen on TV” them was a big hit…and surprisingly there were no duplicates! This year our theme is BLUE. I am having such a hard time with it. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  16. Pingback: Family Gift Exchange, why and HOW! - The Gifty Girl

  17. Pingback: The best Christmas exchange theme ever! | A Bibliophile at Home

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