Secret Santa Gifts: the best and the worst

Anybody who works in an office environment will be all too familiar with the notion of Secret Santa. The pressure of buying a gift for somebody you know nothing about. The elation when you pull your best friend's name out of the hat. The disappointment when you receive a novelty gift you'll never use. The surprise when you get something you actually like.

Secret Santa really is a roller coaster of emotions, but before the anxiety and dread kicks in, have a look at our list below of some of the best and worst gifts you can buy. We would like to think you'll take inspiration from the good ones, but if you happen to pick your office enemy, we've also got your back... 

The history of Secret Santa

Secret Santa was inspired by the generosity of an American philanthropist by the name of Larry Dean Stewart. In the early 1960s, Stewart was totally broke after graduating college, living in his car and doing what he could to get by. One day he was so hungry that he ordered a sandwich in a cafe and pretended he'd lost his money. The cafe owner realised what was actually going on and gave Stewart . It was this small act of kindness that started Secret Santa.

Stewart eventually made it big in the Telecommunications Industry, earning millions in his lifetime. But he never forgot his humble beginnings and gave away million as gifts to strangers, usually 0 at a time, and always did so anonymously. This is where the tradition and idea of Secret Santa first began and now it is enjoyed across the world by millions of people.

If you've never played Secret Santa before you're probably wondering what makes it so fun and exciting and how does it work? 

The rules and variations

The rules of traditional Secret Santa are simple, within your office or group of friends taking part, set a maximum spend budget for each gift. Put all of your names in a hat and then draw out a random name without telling anyone who it is. You then have to buy that person a gift, which they usually open on the last day of work before the Christmas break. Remaining anonymous is fundamental to the success of the process, otherwise you defeat the object of the game. There are other variations that are often played, as we've listed below  

Thieving Secret Santa

Also known as Yankee Swap, this is a more modern interpretation of the game whereby participants take turns in opening an anonymous gift, then choose whether to open a new gift or steal one of the previously opened ones. This is a fun concept that may cause controversy. You have been warned.

Secret Casino Santa

Secret Casino Santa is another style that involves participants buying a gift and putting money of equal value to one side. Then, when choosing, they all have three options: to choose a gift, to opt for money or to enter a raffle to receive a random, unopened gift. This method is ideal if you have some fussy customers in the office who would prefer to go for the cash instead of the novelty toilet roll (a firm Secret Santa favourite).

Conspiracy Santa

This version works quite well in a close-knit office environment and is great for getting to know fellow employees more. There are multiple 'conspiracies' running concurrently, whereby a team of people put their heads together to select a meaningful gift for one particular, unknowing person. This collective learning and bonding between employees makes it a firm favourite and the second most common version of the game (behind the original).

Now that your head is likely baffled by all of the different types of Secret Santa, you're probably panicking even more. But before you get your tinsel in a twist, have a look at our guide below on how to find a great Secret Santa gift.

How to buy a good Secret Santa gift

Most people find buying gifts for their own family difficult, awkward and pressurising - let alone buying for a new office colleague you've known for a week and a half. Apart from knowing his name is Colin and he wears brogues and a scarf every day, what else do you know? You've seen him enjoy 3 microwave lasagnes but they don't exactly constitute a viable gift (even if they are on offer 3 for 2). So, as you were unlucky enough to draw hypothetical Colin, it's best that you find out how to buy a great gift for him.


Believe it or not, in this modern age, we've got far better ways to find out what a stranger likes and dislikes before you've even said 'hi'. The magic of the internet allows us to check out people's Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounts. These particular 4 social media outlets provide the best windows into somebody's interests and hobbies. Yes it might be considered cyber-stalking, but it's for a good cause right? 

Maybe there are pictures of him/her at a rock concert:
  • CD, DVD or book about the band
  • Mug and coaster set
  • Band t-shirt or accessory

Or perhaps their selfies always seem to be on mountains:
  • Survival/camping tools
  • Gloves and beanie hat set
  • Thermos flask

Already there are potentially 6 good ideas developed from just finding 2 images on their social media accounts. Facebook is particularly helpful as you can view their interests in a much more specific way (such as favourite films, music, actors). So go forth, be a creep and do some detective work on them; just make sure you don't accidentally like an image from 4 years ago. That's just awkward.

Talk to them

Ahh the lost art of actually getting to know somebody in ways that don't involve texting or email. Regardless of Secret Santa or not, this is something you should be doing anyway with new colleagues. Getting to know somebody is always going to make present-buying for them much easier. Without seeming obvious you can always nudge the conversation in the right direction by using open questions. Here are a few examples:

"What type of music are you into?"

A simple question that will yield multiple answers and tell you a lot about a person. It's used quite a lot when you meet new people anyway, so there is nothing particularly suspicious about it. It would start getting dubious if you asked specifically what CDs they already owned and started writing them down. Do not do this.

"What type of books do you like to read?"

Similar to the one above, this will give you a good idea of the type of person they are. Do they read fiction or biographical? Historical or post-modern? As advised above, don't make them list their entire bibliography so you can buy them the missing book. Thoughtful but too obvious.

"Give me your top 5 films"

Asking in this way will yield specific answers, as most people tend to like a broad spectrum of films (which would be too general to be helpful to you). This will make them specify a particular film, genre, actor or director's work. Once you have this information, there is an abundance of gift ideas that can spiral from it. 

"Do you like Nutella?"

If they answer no, do not buy them a present. These people cannot be trusted.

"Do you follow or play any sports?"

Be careful with this one as it can seem unnatural if the conversation isn't already bouncing around the subject. Background research on social media beforehand can help, to see if they follow any teams or anything. Then you can just drop in conversation one day how you like that particular sport. But remember to act surprised and enthusiastic when they tell you about their team, as otherwise they will become suspicious of your cyber-stalking if you already know they had their picture taken with the star player back in June, 2011. Not cool.

Novelty gifts: should I even go there?

Secret Santa is notorious for people receiving novelty gifts that are useless and good for a 5 minute laugh in the office and nothing more. They can be memorable but ultimately a waste of money. However, there are certain instances when they do work well.

If you have known the person for years and consider them a very close friend, then a novelty gift is acceptable. After all, you likely buy these people birthday and christmas presents every year anyway, so Secret Santa can be an opportunity to have some fun.

Novelty gifts can also be okay if you are buying for one of those people that has everything. Only when you hit the end of the road trying to find a meaningful item that they don't already own, then you can go out and find a related novelty gift. 

When not to buy novelty gifts

There's a fine line between buying a funny gift and ending up in HR with a slapped wrist. If you are buying for the opposite sex (this goes out to men especially), buying anything from shops such as Ann Summers should be avoided. Opening such a gift in front of an entire office could be very embarrassing for that person, so put yourself in their shoes and don't do it. 

Some novelty gifts can be unintentionally insulting too. Buying someone novelty soap or these mopping-up slippers could look condescending or sexist. You have to remember not everyone will be as light-hearted and thick-skinned as you might be.

In light of this, let's take a look at some very real Secret Santa gifts that people have received. Here's 5 of the worst...  

Top 5 worst Secret Santa gifts

Here are some examples of some people who clearly didn't follow the precautions we mentioned above, with some utterly terrible Secret Santa gifts.

Homemade bottle cap necklace

Yes, this was a real present somebody received. In exchange for a Starbucks gift card and well thought-out make-up bag, a woman in the US received a dog tag necklace with a bottle cap on it. There was extra effort involved however, as the bottle cap had been filled with glue and stuffed with glitter. Lovely.

Stationery cupboard gift box

A firm favourite for all rubbish gift buyers out there. Usually a last minute present because they totally forgot about you, a selection of paper clips, a rubber band stress ball and a stapler warrant one of the worst gifts ever. Due to the last minute nature of such presents, they are usually wrapped in A4 plain copier paper or, worse still, a piece of newspaper with gruesome headlines strewn across it.

A clock

You're probably thinking, that's not so bad! Quite a useful gift that can be used all-year round, right? Indeed it is. But what if I told you somebody had their office clock stolen, wrapped up and gifted back to them as a Secret Santa gift. True story. The best bit is, the batteries were removed because the terrible gift giver needed them for his wireless mouse. Yep, that's pretty poor. 

Toilet mug

Yes this is a real thing and is a very common gift. The initial 5 minute chuckle in the office will soon be lost as the receiver faces the harsh reality of going to the communal kitchen to make their brew in a porcelain loo. Then there is the shame of drinking from it, with the guarantee of every co-worker sniggering every time you do. It's a definite no no if you are customer facing and have a professional image to keep alive. This gift is destined for the back of the cupboard to be forgotten. Forever.


What on earth is one of those, you say? Well this is a Handicorn. Although quite humorous, with the epic tag line of 'swap in an Action Man head and turn it into a centaur', this has got to be the most useless of all gifts. If you are less than 8 years old it would be acceptable and probably quite cool. But in a corporate office environment, sitting at your desk wearing your Handicorn is not a cool vibe. It would also hinder typing quite significantly.

Top 5 best Secret Santa gifts

Now that we have seen the worst of the worst, it's time to see some of the best Secret Santa gifts available. These gifts are all pretty universally cool, meaning that they will satisfy even the most picky and particular of customers.

Thinking Putty

A well-loved and unique gift, thinking putty is like silly putty but for adults. In an office space lacking creativity, rolling the dilatant compound between your hands is as satisfying as it is stress-relieving. The colours change with the warmth of your hands, it stretches, bounces, squashes and shatters. This is cheap, unusual and would prove to be a great talking point in the office.

Portable Mobile Power Bank

In an age where mobile phones may as well be landlines, everybody needs one of these. Batteries will be lucky to last you a full day without a recharge now, but with the Mobile Power Bank you can have disposable charging power everywhere you go. Ideal for keeping in your car or at work, mobile charging banks have become a big thing in recent months. Once again, this comes in under £10 too, and proves to be a useful gift to any age or gender.

Sweets Selection Box

Who doesn't like sweets? Buying or making your own sweet selection box can be as cheap or expensive as you like. For the price of around £10 you can make a coma-inducing compilation of chocolate, candy and other confectionary. If you know what sweets in particular the person likes, you can even make the selection very thoughtful!

Melting Shelf Clock

For any of the art connoisseurs out there, this melting clock would go down a treat. Imitating the famous 1931 'The Persistence of Memory' painting by Salvador Dali, this fully functioning clock would look epic hanging from a shelf in the office or at home. Checking whether it's home time has never been so fun with this cheap and unusual gift, ideal for the artsy or creative type. 

Alcohol and Food Hampers

If you know the person's tipple already, buying their favourite wine or alcoholic beverage will always go down well. If they don't drink though, why not consider a food hamper? Everybody loves food. Keep an eye on what they tend to have for lunch and get some ideas from that. Alternatively, they may be one of these 'food photo fiends' on social media, posting images of every single meal they have (usually with captions like #healthkick #summerbody #cheatmeal).

Any of these presents make great gifts to all ages and genders. However, the art to Secret Santa should stretch beyond that. Doing your own research into the person is more fun and personal. For those particularly tough Secret Santa customers, playing it safe with something that has functionality over fun is always advised. This doesn't mean you have to take the word 'fun' out of functionality entirely though (refer back to the Thinking Putty).


With the long list of ideas above (both good and bad), hopefully we have managed to trigger a spark of inspiration in you. Present buying should be fun not stressful, with the underlying concept that you know the person well enough to give them something they want or need. It's a great time of year to get to know office newbies, with christmas drinks and work's parties a plenty. 

Whether you decide to use the 'research' method, 'small talk' method or just simply overhear a conversation, do your best in finding an inexpensive way to show that effort and time has been spent in the selection of the gift. They will never find out you bought it (if you play the game correctly), so don't worry if it doesn't go down as well as you'd hoped. 

Conversely, if it is a huge success and they absolutely love it, resist the temptation to proclaim yourself as the gift giving god. You'll look conceited and only in search for self-glory - not exactly endearing traits.

Whatever happens in your office this year, just remember it is a bit of festive fun for everybody, so avoid getting overly offended should you receive a particular howler of a gift. Grimace your way through a smile, pretend you are happy with it, then go home, spend a day or so trying to figure out who bought it, stick a picture of their face to a punch bag, and unleash hell. Then hope for revenge the following year. 

Merry Christmas!