“Dirty Santa” Game

by admin on December 1, 2011

I am continually stunned that some people who are usually so normal can lack manners and plain common sense.

I am from a fairly large extended family. During the holidays my mother, her siblings, and their immediate families all get together. One of our Christmas activities is to play a game called “Dirty Santa”. Everyone brings a wrapped gift — not a “white elephant” gift, but a nice, new gift — under $25. The idea is that you don’t know what the other gifts are. All of the packages are put into the center of the room and everyone who brought one gets to draw a number. The players then take turns in their drawn order. The first person chooses a gift to unwrap. The second person can either “steal” that gift or go for an unknown box. This continues with each person getting a choice of any of the unwrapped gifts or a new package. Then the first person gets to trade their gift with anyone they wish, if they want.

Last Christmas I brought a very attractive set of glasses. I was recently engaged, and my fiance and I were secretly hoping to end up with them at the end of the game. One of my cousins was recently married and he and his wife also brought a dirty santa gift (which turned out to be a nice multi-purpose pan). The players were *supposed to be* myself (and my fiance as a team), my uncle, 4 aunts, my mother, and my cousin’s wife (and my cousin as a team, though he was busy with something else). In other words, the people who had brought items. There was a total of 8 gifts.

One of my aunts volunteered to be in charge. Please let me say, she is usually gracious, intelligent and thoughtful. Anyway, she wrote the numbers 1-8 on scraps of paper and tossed them in a bowl. She then started walking around and allowing people to choose numbers. Imagine my surprise when she purposely passed over both myself and my cousin’s wife (the wife of her nephew) and allowed two other cousins — her own daughters — to choose numbers. Now, I must state some points of clarification:

My aunts and mother are mostly retired now and “homemaker types”. Even my uncle is a fantastic and exuberant cook and loves to keep a nice home. For this reason, the gifts are generally home goods like glasses, pans, towels, etc. Absolutely nothing that would interest a 20-year-old and 21-year-old living in their college dorms.

My aunt’s children are said 20- and 21-year-olds, not children who would be upset and have a tantrum at being left out of the game, and would perfectly understand the “bring a gift to participate” rule.

My cousin’s wife and I looked at each other with obvious shock and surprise. I knew this was especially upsetting for her, as their finances had been tight and she had scrimped to purchase a gift because she wanted to participate so much (our family had showered them with wedding presents, and in no way made her feel obligated; she had said the year before that it looked like so much fun she “just had” to play next time.) Needless to say, the rest of the family was quite miffed that my aunt allowed her children to select items that they had no use for (the 20-year-old ended up with our stemless wine glasses and the 21-year-old with a deep-fat fryer…fire in the dorm, anyone?) and left people out of the game who had a right to play. People began leaving the festivities soon after, much earlier than usual. To this day, my aunt is clueless, as my family are the type to let things roll off of our shoulders and move on.

I did joke with my fiance that perhaps we should write a thank-you note to one of her daughters (from whom we did not receive anything, nor did we expect to) for the engagement gift my aunt bought us to get the point across. But neither I nor my wonderful fiance could or would ever bring ourselves to that level of tackiness. We sent her a personal, hand-written thank-you (fiance even wrote in his own expression of gratitude himself…yes, I am exceedingly fortunate) within a week of receiving her gift (a lovely vase). 0511-11

{ 104 comments… read them below or add one }

Serenity S. December 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I definitely agree with the other posters. OP should have spoken up right away. I can understand cousin’s wife being nervous to speak up if she had just married into the family, but OP was a relative.


Redneck Gravy December 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I agree with the other 40 plus posters, Why on earth wasn’t something said at the time???

I’m glad someone else is taking over the drawing of numbers. Geez, does anyone in your family have a spine?

And you may have attended a top 10 university where cooking was not allowed but I have just toured two division one universities with my daughter and, (1) microwaves and other small electrical cooking appliances are allowed in their dorm rooms and (2) each dorm has a full sized kitchen where students may bring their own pots/pans/appliances or “rent” them from the dorm and cook in said kitchens. Times may have changed since your dorm days.

Whether they cook or don’t seemed irrelevant to the gist of the story IMO anyway.


Leslie Holman-Anderson December 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm

IMO, this game can be a lot of fun, but only if the gifts are silly. And inexpensive. Around here (Western Washington) it’s called ‘Chinese Gift Exchange;’ I have no idea why. But ‘Dirty Santa’ makes it sound like all the gifts have to come from the XXX store!


Another Laura December 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm

@ Calli Arcale-it wasn’t so much that OP and her husband were “teaming up” in that they each got a number and a gift, but that they would have shared a number as a team, still only one gift between them (but they could consult about which gift to pick).
And OP explained in her comment (#40) that her cousins don’t cook (maybe it would have been helpful to have that in the original post). She’s not assuming, she knows her cousins.


Calli Arcale December 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

“And, excuse me, “tacky” for hoping we would end up with a gift we liked so much? That’s sort of the point…everyone buys something they (or anyone else) would like to have, in case they get the chance to end up with it.”

Okay, obviously you play it a very different way than me. I guess I don’t understand what the point of such a game would be, if the *objective* is to not actually give anybody anything at all. It’s certainly okay to try to get something you like — but you made it pretty clear that your specific goal was to get that particular gift back, and that you were teaming up with your fiance to ensure it happened.

Me, I buy something that I know I’d like — not with the *goal* of winning it back, but as insurance in *case* I get it back. 😀 I’d rather someone else get what I bought (since the point is to give someone something) and I end up with something cool I wouldn’t have thought to buy myself. And when I was in college, I didn’t cook (not allowed on campus), but I would’ve been happy to get housewares. After all, I wasn’t planning on living on campus indefinitely. 😉

“Perhaps there is some misunderstanding about our family dynamic.”

Yes, but I hope you don’t blame the readers for not knowing what you didn’t include in your letter. I’m glad you and your family are so close, but that’s all the more reason to be careful what you say about them behind their backs. I’ve seen things like that backfire pretty spectacularly. Depends on the family, of course.


JS December 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

OP, thanks for updating, but could you please explain why you didn’t speak up at the time? You said you didn’t want to “start an argument,” but would you have started an argument if you said “Oh, wait–I didn’t get to draw a number yet!”? That…doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Lynne December 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm

While I agree that it makes sense to bring a gift that is of such quality that you yourself would like to own it, it seems very strange to hope that you’d be going home with the exact item that you brought. How is that a gift?

As for the college student question — OP, you would have ruffled fewer feathers if you’d just said that your cousins were uninterested in cooking or hosting, rather than generalizing that the home goods were “absolutely nothing that would interest a 20-year-old and 21-year-old living in their college dorms.”

While you know your cousins best, I certainly would have appreciated a set wineglasses when I was in college — and by the time I was 22 and living in an apartment, I was hosting dinner parties, deep-fried chicken included.

Many people in their early 20’s do enjoy cooking, and many schools do, in fact, have dorm kitchens open to student use . However, I doubt that that particular amenity is heavily weighted in a ‘Top 10’ rating of academic institutions, so I am not sure why you bring it up.


A December 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I definately agree with others that *someone* should have spoken up, but I’m also a little thrown back by the OP stating that she was hoping to end up with her own gift. If she wanted it that much, then she should have bought for herself in the first place. 😛


Angeldrac December 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Is it possible that Auntie just had a brain blip moment? And was just passing the basket around without thinking? OP seems to think she’s not usually a nasty person so, to me, that seems a likely explanation. The cousins obviously saw NO ONE object when they were offered the basket and thought “yay, presents – the adults are letting us be kids again! How fun!” (which isn’t an unreasonable thing to have assumed), and chose numbers themselves without a word.
Yeah, the more I think about it, the more the brain blip theory makes sense.
Would you agree, OP?


acr December 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm

We used to play this game in our family. It’s a fun activity – especially when the family is at that age when the “kids” are all in high school or college. It gives the family something fun to do and talk about.


WrenskiBaby December 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm

No need to tell the number giver that she messed up. “Am I not understanding this gift exchange correctly? I thought I was supposed to take a number…” might work.


essie December 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm

OP, as Mellowed One said: If it didn’t matter (then or now), then why bring it up? If you brought it up, then it must matter.

You say your cousins’ dorms don’t have kitchens but your proof of this seems to be YOUR experience (“I attended a top 10 university that also did not have dorm kitchens and I have NEVER heard of this”). Please try not to be so close-minded; I didn’t attend a “Top 10” school, but every dorm had a kitchen on each floor; since others have mentioned it as well, then it appears that your “Top” school was in the minority on this issue. Electrical cooking appliances are like marijuana; they may not be allowed in school, but “everybody” uses them – or knows someone who does.

If you see your cousins and aunts everyday and know them so well that you can insist your cousins don’t cook, then surely your family knows your aunt well enough to expect her to do something like this and not allow her to host the game. First you say “Imagine my surprise when she purposely passed over [us]”, then you say “it was no mistake on my aunt’s part”. If you were surprised, then how do you know it was no mistake? If you know it was no mistake, then why were you surprised?

If it really doesn’t matter, then why waste over 700 words complaining about it? If it’s important enough to describe the situation in that much detail, then why try to pass it off as not worth mentioning?


Mary December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

“I’m sorry, but, to me, “tacky” is buying a gift you want in the hope you would get it back, with no thought that someone else might want it.”

We play this on DH’s side and I always buy things that we want, because we never know what we might end up with and I want to increase the chances that it’s something we like. However, I make sure it is something we would like along with others also.

Our rules for the 50 some people that play on Christmas day. One must have graduated from high school and had to bring a gift. Otherwise they can’t play. Plus an item can only be stolen 3 times. There is quite a big of strategy that goes on here!

Yes, aunt was rude and so were the cousins, knowing they didn’t bring a gift and still played. However, if you didn’t speak up at the time, you need to drop it. This means that this year, speak up if someone tries to break the rules!


bevu December 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I can’t get into the Aunt’s head to see what her thought process was but both people who were left out of the game were a “team” of fiancees or newlyweds. Would the Aunt be miffed at that. Misunderstood that you would only be getting one gift together.

Adding her own children is more then rude, it’s petty theft. If they wanted to play I would think there are things in the house that could be wrapped up quickly as gifts or an IOU promise of a gift card.


Angela December 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Bringing a gift that you secretly want yourself to a Dirty Santa is a recipe for disappointment IMHO.


Otter December 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

We play this game every month with my Bunco club. Only people who have brought a gift are allowed to participate and we find out who did by raising hands. Those who don’t bring a gift sit and watch. It’s hilarious. The best way to ruin it is by making it unfair, which your aunt did. But you also bear some responsibility for not speaking up. What could your aunt have possibly said to make it o.k. for you two to be excluded? “You bring a gift, you take home a gift.” It’s that simple. If you aren’t allowed to participate, your gift isn’t either. It goes home with you. Problem averted. Learn to speak up people, especially in such clear cut circumstances.


June December 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Sorry, OP. The tone of your original post does not sound like this was simply an amusing anecdote about your charming family. I even read it again after I read your comment, and it still seemed like you’re holding onto that grudge with both hands.

So, I guess, use the constructive criticism for this year and enjoy your polite spine!


Jo December 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm

I’ve played this game dozens of times and found it can be a fun activity most of the time. With certain groups of people it becomes “not fun”. But that’s the people, not the game. (Same can be said for simply socializing…) However, I somehow have never heard it called “Dirty Santa”. That name makes me cringe, but there are lots of terms for this.


Another Alice December 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Blech, I even hate the name of the game, “Dirty Santa.” I agree with other posters that the game in and of itself seems a bit of a problem, at least it would be for me – HOWEVER, I am not in the OPs family, and many families/groups of friends/coworkers know each other well enough to have a good time with it. (I don’t even do Secret Santa at work any more – I always end up with the one person I don’t know at ALL and am annoyed at having to find a gift for them that they’ll like, receive a gift that I know was WAY too expensive or cheap and feel bad, etc., and just ended up hating it.)

And yeah, I understand the OPs thought – I would have said something but again, that’s MY family. I actually just grinned to myself thinking what an uproar it would be if someone was skipped, picturing the multiple over-70s members of my family loudly scolding. It wouldn’t happen. But, the OPs family might not have the same atmosphere, and you live, you learn.

I have an idea that might improve Dirty Santa/Yankee Swap – what if there was a theme every year for gifts? Housewares one year, gift cards the next, DVDs, music, books, etc.? Then at least everyone would be guaranteed a gift in the same price range (there’s always SOMEONE, no matter the price limit, who over or under-indulges even with a price limit), and then if people don’t require something of that theme or aren’t interested, they don’t have to participate. (I thought this while pondering when – if ever – I’d participate and realize that since my friends and I are book nerds, a Yankee Swap for books would be absolutely thrilling regardless of what we ended up with, as we always recommend books to each other anyway.)

P.S., The point of the game for me was also completely lost when the OP stated she wanted the gift she came with. Uh, what? Again, I ask for clarification as to why this game is even played at all if you come in wanting what you brought.


kimi December 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm

My very large (50+) extended family play this game at Christmas everyyear, simple because of the size and because it’s hard to know who is going to be there in advance. We try to make it friendlier by making the rules clear in advance (amout of gift, who is playing, etc…) we also limit the number of steals per gift alloud and don’t unrap until the end. Watching people fight over a gift that ends up being boring can be funny, since everyone is light hearted about it. We also allow trades since people from many age groups play (we have a seperate game for the kids). It might be tacky all around, but it works for us where nothing else has. We never have people leaving cranky over it.


spartiechic December 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Our family had decided long ago that bringing a gift for everyone was expensive and crazy. Since then, all adults who care to participate put their name in a hat in the fall. Each person then draws a name from the hat. That’s the person that they have to buy for and we cap the gifts at $25. It’s kind of like a secret santa for the family. You don’t know who has someone else unless you ask. It’s been very nice to just buy for one person and then the kids. It’s a lot nicer than “Yankee Swap” or “Dirty Santa” and you still only have to bring one thing. I’ve played the other game before at work with useless items from home. Now, that one was fun because no one wanted anything that was brought and we could laugh about the crazy things we had laying around the house.


Ally L December 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Wooow, I didn’t have much to add to the chorus of “speak up sooner!” until I read the OP’s comment here, and it does appear that the OP has an axe to grind, and there was a lot of hostility coming through that post. Attending a “top 10 university” doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the girls could use cookwear. There are on- and off-campus apartments, plus the girls will eventually need these things anyway, and the pans or fryer could last for a long time if cared for.

And from the comment, it seems that everyone now knows that Aunt planned this, so much so that Uncle is in charge this year, but still, NO ONE had a talk with her about it. Keeping it quiet probably just bred resentment, culminating in everyone talking about why Uncle is running it this year. And sorry, she must not be as gracious as you think, since she took advantage of your not bring prone to start an arguement. There were plenty of polite suggestions that would not have caused an arguement, but still enabled the game to be fair.

Anywho, could someone say why this game is looked down on by some? I played it years ago in Girl Scouts, and seems like something fun to do with a close group of friends I’ll be having over, but of course if it’s in bad taste I’ll reconsider.


Margaret December 1, 2011 at 7:43 pm

OP — if you had said, in a friendly manner — “Aunty, we brought a gift and we didn’t get a number yet,” would that really have started an argument? An argument? If something as mild as that would have started a family row, then your family is NOT the friendly, laid back group that you said they are.


Miss Raven December 1, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Forget OP saying something. I’m still having trouble digesting that the OP’s parents and other aunts and uncles didn’t say anything. I have two aunts and if either of them did something like this my mother would have been on them immediately, without my input. As siblings, they’re very close and used to disagreeing with one another and those factors combine to make the perfect person to pipe up. How is it possible that none of the siblings did?

That said, seriously? We’re dogpiling on the OP for assuming that her cousins in the dorms would have little use for nice cookware? My dorm had a kitchen and when I moved out, I had an apartment. But in the dorm kitchen no one ever brought nice, new adult cookware because it was sure to get destroyed or stolen or at least scuffed up. And I guarantee there is no dorm in the country that allows deep fryers. They don’t even allow hotplates and many of them have bans on electric kettles, nevermind appliances with flammable reputations like deep fryers.

As for stemware, both in the dorms and later in my college apartment I kept it to the fun and plastic variety, because college students don’t have wine and cheese socials with expensive, mod wine glasses. They have parties or at the very least, boozy nights with friends. Glasses get broken. Where would someone living in the dorm even KEEP things like this? I don’t fault the OP for thinking these gifts were inappropriate for her cousins and their current living situations. It just makes Auntie’s behavior all the more bizarre.


anotherloginname December 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Find a spine. If you are really so close to your family as to see them every few days, you should be close enough to deal with it at the time “whoops, you seem to have forgotten to give me my number!”

We play this the same way as Calli Arcale, only we allow three steals. That and for us it’s the ‘$2 game’. Though I concede the limit has gone up to five in recent years.

For our family, this game makes Christmas. We normally clean up after lunch then use this to fill in some time before we can fit dessert in. It’s cheap enough for everyone to participate, and someone always brings spare gifts in case a neighbour or someone else pops in unexpectadly. Everyone plays from toddler to octoganerians, and even the littlies get into the spirit of stealing, trading, and the theatrics of pretending to steal a treasured item.

Gifts can be anything from lotto scratchie tickets to a toilet brush, mini alcohol bottles, a second hand cup my mum found last year with a crossword puzzle on it and a pencil for a handle (Grandma fought tooth and nail for that!), a roll of electrical tape we later used to tie my cousin to a chair. Junk? Usually. But lots of fun.


Stacey Frith-Smith December 1, 2011 at 8:22 pm

These issues are always touchy. No one wants to be a bad sport, and many were brought up to promote peace, even at a slightly higher price, out of respect for the family as a whole. OP didn’t do one thing wrong. Wanting the gift she brought, failing to speak up for whatever reason, and writing into a fairly anonymous forum to vent is not wrong. The aunt and the two daughters were in the wrong for trading on another person’s privilege to play. Motives and afterthoughts aside, one simply does not exclude people who have prepared to play in favor of those who have not. Simple. Not speaking up is a choice, not a matter of right and wrong. Offering one’s daughter the property of another family member is wrong, however.


TheBardess December 1, 2011 at 9:04 pm

OP- the fact that you have never heard of something doesn’t mean it does not exist or is not true. My college had community kitchens in several of the dorms, as does my sister’s. And since the quality of the school apparently matters in these things (you stressed your “Top 10” status), I attended an Ivy League, while my sister attends a small, but excellent and rigorous liberal arts college in Michigan.


Patiently Heading Downhill December 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Based on the OP’s story and follow up comments I think most likely this was a case of letting something slide intentionally just to have an injury to nurse. The story and the comment smacked of smugness and the fact that this was sent out almost immediately after the offense makes it seem that this is less a case of “this is a funny story my family tells now” and more a case of “I absolutely MUST tell you what this boorish person did!” The defensiveness of pointing out to the rest of us that a dorm kitchen is unheard of in her “top ten university” world along with her pretty offensive remarks implying that the vast majority of men are incapable of being polite makes it seem like this was more likely than not the case.

Your family may see each other daily but that doesn’t mean that you do not also engage in passive aggressive behavior. I grew up in a family full of people who saw each other daily and loved to say nothing when their toes were stepped on (innocently or not) just so that they could complain about it later. Either say something and try to correct the situation or say nothing and let it slide in good humor, but choosing the third option of saying nothing to the offender and complaining about what happened (whether it was immediately afterwards or ten years later) is what is really “tacky.”


ellesee December 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I, too, am continuously stunned that some people lack common sense.

OP, grow a spine. Speaking up is not going to set off an argument nor does it indicate an intention to do so. By letting it “roll off your back,” you allowed your cousin’s fun (since she had saved up for this even and was looking forward it) to be squashed. To have something “roll off your back” means that situations will not affect you in anyway. Yet everybody in the room was miffed and left earlier than usual. I think what you really mean is that you and your family are non-confrontational and would rather forget it happened than to approach the subject.

“Oh, and to the person who said I am rude for assuming that my cousins could not use cookware: their dorms do not have kitchens (I attended a top 10 university that also did not have dorm kitchens and I have NEVER heard of this) and there are no electrical cooking appliances allowed”

I’ve also attended a top 10 university and there were kitchens in the dorm and people did cook (although not usually). Stop assuming. Of course you know your cousins more than we (strangers do), but how do we know that? What you wrote was snarky and mean-spirited and the story could have done without it.


Meghan December 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I don’t usually comment, but I just had to pipe up this time… Not actually about the etiquette (I’ll leave that one for the experts) but about the comment (assumption) that 20/21 year old college girls would never be interested in home goods… I know this is completely untrue, since I was one only 2 years ago. I simply LOVE home goods. For example, when I was 19 my boyfriend (now fiance) bought me a rice maker as a present and I was ecstatic. Though I understand why the two girls should not have had a part in the game, if I was the 21 year old I would have been very happy to go home with the wine glasses.


Cat whisperer December 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm

“…To this day, my aunt is clueless, as my family are the type to let things roll off of our shoulders and move on….”

No, people who let things roll off of their shoulders and move on don’t brood about something for a whole year and then write an aggrieved letter to an etiquette site about what happened. And therein lies the problem.

When Auntie Clueless passed over people who had submitted gifts and allowed people who hadn’t brought gifts to draw numbers, that was the time for someone to politely speak up. “Auntie Clueless, the draw is for people who brought gifts. Cousins College 1 and College 2 didn’t bring a gift, so they aren’t in the draw; ‘OP’ and Cousin So-and-so brought gifts, so they’re in the draw.” If this is said politely but firmly, and with a sense of informing Aunty Clueless, not accusing her, there should be no problem. Auntie Clueless gets to say “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what the rules were,” Cousins College 1 and College 2 return their numbers, and ‘OP’ and Cousin So-and-so get to draw. No harm, no foul, no hard feelings.

Etiquette assumes that when someone who is clueless commits a gaffe that requires remediation, someone quietly makes the correction in a way that informs the clueless one without shaming them. If Auntie Clueless really didn’t know how the game was supposed to work, it was no kindness to keep silent when she fouled up. If Auntie Clueless is a conscientious person, she’d be much more mortified to be allowed to continue with her gaffe than she’d be to have it corrected at the moment she made it.

It is not kind to allow someone to commit an inadvertent etiquette gaffe that causes resentment when it is possible to correct the gaffe without shaming or blaming. Etiquette is supposed to be about making people feel comfortable around each other and getting along without conflict or bad feelings. A few quick words to Auntie Clueless would have corrected this situation and saved Aunt from becoming the object of covert resentment for a whole year. Much better to have spoken up than to have stewed resentfully in silence.


admin December 2, 2011 at 6:17 am


To be fair, the OP has not been nursing a grudge for a year. The numbers at the bottom of the story indicate the date the story was received by Ehell so this was sent last year right after the holidays. I keep certain holiday related stories in draft form until the holiday rolls around again.


gramma dishes December 1, 2011 at 10:54 pm

OP ~~ I confess to being confused. You state in your follow up post that it was no mistake on your aunt’s part … she knew the rules. So you know she did that intentionally. Then you kind of go la-de-da, we’re all such a laid back happy wonderful togetherness kind of family.

It sounds like all has been forgiven and it wasn’t really that big of a deal. But it was! I think it was a very big deal. Especially since it was apparently quite intentional and not some sort of weird but honest mistake. I would have been very upset had this happened to me and I think most other people would too!

I give you credit for being so forgiving, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to see that Aunt (or her daughters, the two cousins who took gifts knowing they weren’t legitimate participants in the game) the same way again. For me this would have been a relationship altering experience.


Jade December 1, 2011 at 11:19 pm

These games can be fraught if everyone isn’t on the same page in regards to the rules. I recall a dirty santa which went horribly wrong one year when one of the participants confused it with a ‘secret santa’ and spent a little over the agreed price on a gift intended for her best friend at the office. She was very upset when her friend traded it away sight unseen for some Mr Men books.

The OP should have spoken up, but I can see why she didn’t, I wouldn’t like to make a scene at a family Christmas or accuse anyone of taking things they weren’t entitled to. It would have been potentially a very awkward conversation to demand that everyone show the gift they had bought to contribute to the game. In all honesty it sounds like a deliberately engineered situation to me, either your aunt or your cousins inserted themselves into the game relying on your natural tact to keep you from speaking up for yourself and the other person left out and scoring themselves some very nice gifts in the process… Unfortunately if you spoke to them now I’m sure you would receive a blank stare and a ‘Did we? I don’t remember…’ so unfortunately you might have to let this one go.


Melanie December 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Wow, OP, kinda condescending in your response to the comments. You posted it, which puts it up for other people’s opinions…


Allie December 2, 2011 at 12:02 am

I really despise these kinds of games, and I’m glad to hear that participation was completely voluntary. It seems aunt didn’t want the two girls to be left out, and perhaps they did not know the rules and so did not know that two people who had brought gifts were being excluded in favour of two who had not. While I understand that, per the general tenor of the comments, you could have politely spoken up, I feel like that might have made you feel petty, whether justifiably or not. The point of good etiquette is to ensure our guests don’t have to feel that way. Aunt should not have done this, and she should not have put her guests in this position. These types of games often lead to such awkwardness, and in my opinion they are not at all in the spirit of the season.


Kathryn December 2, 2011 at 1:52 am

Your response contains just a little bit of smug snarkiness, OP, :/

Speaking up doesn’t start arguments in my family. Even my most mild mannered, meek and polite friend would have spoken up in that situation and it wouldn’t have caused an argument. Threepenny (#17) didn’t call you rude, she said it was tacky ( a word that you used) to describe a situation in which you hoped to buy yourself a present. Why on earth did you put “methinks” in quotations?

You included no information about whether the college dorms have their own kitchenette and excused your ignorance with your prestigious education. You did not include information about your family dynamics and how you know each other so well that you understand each other’s motivations. You said “to this day, my aunt is clueless” in your original post along, but “I sent this email nearly a year ago, just after it happened” in your comment. Which one is it, OP?

But nevermind, all this fuss you’re making is a hilarious start to my morning and most amusing! You must be misunderstanding our community dynamic.


Edhla December 2, 2011 at 8:22 am

Thank you for clarifying the time frame, Admin. I have read several stories recently where the OP chimes in with “gosh, I’m not mad, I’m not resentful, it’s totally cool, I’m OVER it everyone!” which leave me thinking “… Really? Because your wound-up tone and the fact that you submitted this to the site makes me wonder…”

(Also, as a total aside as I’ve no other way of contacting you- is there a direct email address to submit a story? I have a doozy of a tale for Hell’s Bells but the link to submit a story isn’t working for me, boo.)


Gracie C. December 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

Stacey- yes, not speaking up is a choice, but you then live with that choice, not complain about it when speaking up would have easily solved the problem.

Nothing much to add regarding the original post. It has all been said


Chocobo December 2, 2011 at 10:09 am

Kimi — oh, I forgot about not unwrapping until the end! We now do that in my family so that you have to “judge the book by it’s cover”, so to speak. So now there are competitions to have the most attractive-looking wrapping so your gift gets stolen a lot.


MellowedOne December 2, 2011 at 10:34 am

admin, can you clarify how to read the date? I see “0511-11”. Doesn’t that mean story received May of this year?

OP, perhaps I am misunderstanding your post(s), but what I see represents a contradiction and lack of appropriate response. Aunt is normally ‘gracious, intelligent, thoughtful’, but she intentionally left you and someone else out of a gift exchange tradition?

And why not did you, your cousin, or anyone there simply speak up? All chose to become angry at your aunt, but no one said a peep in protest. They even left earlier than usual due to the event, which I assume they did for that reason because you brought that detail up.

OP, here’s the question…WHY did you aunt do that? No speculations or guesses from anyone, please, regardless of how ‘well’ they know her. What did SHE say her reason was?

THAT’s the point. The failure to ‘mend a broken fence’ is probably one of the biggest obstacles I see in these stories. People get hurt/shocked/offended, and think “for the sake of keeping the peace” that it’s better to not say anything. Except, in the stories that get posted here, it’s not.


Library Diva December 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I don’t really understand all the hate for these types of games, either. The one thing that I’ve had experience with them “going bad” is when people don’t understand the rules. The first time I did this was at an old job, and I seriously don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard. It was one of the “white elephant” ones, and it was good fun. A new job tried the “white elephant” swap, and some people understood it and others didn’t. The next year there, we didn’t make it “white elephant” and that cleared matters up. It still wasn’t fun, but that wasn’t a fun workplace.

As long as everyone’s on the same page, I personally see nothing tacky or wrong about it. It’s a way to liven up Christmas parties that can tend to be dull or awkward. It’s something different. It gets people out of their cliques and having fun together. It can help relieve the pressure of buying for a specific person, or feeling like you need to buy something for everyone in the group. I really don’t see what’s tacky about it.


Hannabanna December 2, 2011 at 1:21 pm

I am pretty befuddled here.

First, there is a tremendously long complicated story about the rules to this game….what to bring, how much to spend, who is on what “team”, etc.

I’m thinking auntie dear may have just not really understood the “team” player part, and passed over the extra team members (I still don’t get the team part, and no, please don’t explain it to me)

In my family, and extended friends community, we frequently will let people play these sort of games, or participate in a grab bag or exchange who by rights should not because we are extending the pleasure and fun of the season as part of our own christmas cheer (“it is more blessed to give than to receive”) so maybe auntie was kind of doing the same thing?


Cat whisperer December 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm

My apologies to OP for assuming that the letter was fresh, but my original point still holds: when someone commits an etiquette bloomer that can cause resentment, it is not kind to allow the person to continue with the mistake while you silently seethe with resentment.

The way I was brought up, it is never impolite, and not a violation of etiquette, to save someone from causing a problem, as long as the correction is administered in a way that presumes innocence and doesn’t shame or blame. The assumption is that the person who is in error is a conscientious person who has made an innocent mistake, and who would want to be saved from commiting an etiquette faux pas and becoming the inadvertent object of resentment of others.

OP, in my opinion, committed an etiquette faux pas of her own by not stepping in to save poor Auntie Clueless from herself when Auntie Clueless departed from the rules of the gift exchange. Assuming that Auntie was not acting with malice aforethought, the kindest thing to do was to immediately correct the situation– WITHOUT BLAMING OR SHAMING–


Cat whisperer December 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Drat, dragged my cursor over the “submit” button and went to the submission. To finish:

…the kindest thing to do was to immediately correct the situation– WITHOUT BLAMING OR SHAMING– because you want to save Auntie Clueless from embarrassment and you know that since she’s a conscientious person, she’d be mortified to have her gaffe cause hurt or inconvenience to someone else.

I’d like to add a little note about holiday gift exchanges in general: the whole gifting process can become a minefield of hurt feelings, of using gifts a weapons of vengeance or guilt, of bringing out the worst in people and creating bad memories instead of good memories. And that is really sad. The purpose of a gift exchange is supposed to be to bring joy, happiness, to have fun and enjoy the time we have together with people we care about and whose company we enjoy.

The moment anything about the process of gift-giving becomes a chore or burden, or results in pain or unhappiness in any form, I think you need to step back and take a look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and see if there’s something you can do within the boundaries of decency and good manners to change things so you bring joy and happiness back to the process. It seems so sad to me that a mistaken notion that it’s wrong to correct someone who is committing a faux pas that causes hurt for someone could take the joy out of what should be a fun event, especially if the faux pas that caused the hurt was committed in genuine ignorance and without malice.


Kati December 2, 2011 at 11:36 pm

This may be a little Pollyanna-ish of me, but is it possible that the daughters brought gifts but somehow they didn’t get into the pile? Accidentally pushed underneath something (my family has found sometimes found rogue gifts when taking the tree down), put in another room and forgot, even snitched before the game? I don’t know whether the logistics fit here or not, but I can imagine a situation where the Aunt didn’t see all the gifts brought in, wrote out numbers for the gifts she saw and gave them to the people she knew brought them without realizing that two were missing.

Worse, I can see someone being very embarrassed for a moment when they go get their coats, but then figuring it worked out OK because someone must have brought extras — thinking that if the OP and cousin had brought gifts, they would have said something.


Linnie December 3, 2011 at 12:39 am

To be honest, I think the whole game is tacky and stupid. It would be really fun, if you didn’t get to “steal” a gift that someone else already picked. That ruins the game for me.
I played that game once and bought something that I ended up really wanting for myself… so I went out and bought another one. The game is no fun at all if you just try to get your own gift back! If you’re super tight on money just go buy something that you can afford for the game and keep the original gift that you wanted.

Also, “For this reason, the gifts are generally home goods like glasses, pans, towels, etc. Absolutely nothing that would interest a 20-year-old and 21-year-old living in their college dorms.”
I disagree, those are EXACTLY what someone living in a dorm needs. While I never lived in a dorm myself, my close friend is in college and struggling to survive there because she started out with absolutely NOTHING. She’d kill to have glasses/pans/towels/etc handed to her for free.


Kai December 3, 2011 at 7:47 am

Personally I’m not a fan of this game. I can do the Secret Santa game, where you get a specific person’s name and have to buy for them, and in fact I quite like hunting for nice little gifts to give, but the gift-theft side of this game is what I dislike, as the times I participated, everyone else thought the ‘fun’ of the game was just to see who could keep stealing the same stuff over and over.

There was another time when the leader of the youth group I went to suggested we play this, and wanted us to get $5 gifts, and said the quirkier the better. My contribution was a roll of Sudoku toilet paper, I thought it was kind of a nice little novelty and the rest of the group quite liked it as they kept trying to get it from each other and honestly I liked seeing that they actually enjoyed what I had brought. What I didn’t think very highly of however, was that the ‘gift’ that the youth leader’s wife had brought was a box of bread crumbs which was past it’s use-by date, and I unfortunately ended up with it. The husband was clearly not happy with his wife for that, and I didn’t say a word about it. But I did ‘accidentally’ leave it in the back of their van when they gave me a ride home.


MonkeysMommy December 3, 2011 at 2:56 pm

OP, I almost couldn’t finish your story for wanting to berate you for your rudeness. Both my family and office do this, and on the rule list: You don’t take your own gift back!!!! How unbelievably rude!!! I am frankly kind of glad someone else got them. That’s just ridiculous. I’ve had it happen to me one time, I selected a dirty Santa gift that I fell in love with. Then a colleague’s wife chose to take my gift. That kind of sucked, but it was part of the game, so I was cool with it… Til that colleague’s cousin (who also worked with us) mentioned that the colleague had brought the gift, and that his wife told him they had better get it back because they wanted what they had brought. Now, we have about 60 people playing this game, and out of all that, she couldn’t find something else she liked?? After hearing how upset I was over it, the colleague went out and bought me the item with a note of apology over wife’s behavior, so I gave him a pass on the event, but I’ve grown extremely tired of that game.


Kay L December 3, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I would have asked why I didn’t get a number.

And if a number was not forthcoming so that I could play the game, I would have taken the gift that I contributed out of the pile and put it somewhere else.

The time to object is at the beginning of the game before things get started.


AS December 4, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Like other posters, I am also miffed that the OP didn’t speak up at that time. Either say something then (or at least this year), or let it pass. You will not start a confrontation, and if it bothers you, you can try saying this year something like “I hope like last year, fiancé/hubby and I are not overlooked while passing the numbers this year”, and give a smile. It is possible that the family just didn’t realize that something had gone wrong.

I have a story that happened during playing Dirty Santa too. We often play the game at Christmas celebrations in our faculty adviser’s house. We were allowed to mutually exchange gifts with someone else if we wanted to. One year, I ended up with some children’s play item (like play dough or silly putty, don’t remember which; but I didn’t have much use for it). We were discussing what we ended up with, when another faculty (who had let her daughter play instead of her) said that her daughter would have loved to get that. I said I am willing to exchange it with the beautiful holiday butter knife set that she got, but (according to her mother) didn’t have much use for. So, I gave it to her daughter, expecting an exchange. When I asked her for the knife set, the mother gave me a very dirty look as if saying “how dare you ask something from a 10 year old!”. I felt quite embarrassed, and I still don’t know if I did anything wrong. It is only a gift (and we don’t spend too much on them, thought I usually take care to get something that everyone can use), so I didn’t make much fuss about it. But I don’t think it was fair on her part to take my gift, and not give hers in exchange which is in spirit of the gift exchange.


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