Below you’ll find the show notes for episode 72, Rethinking Christmas Traditions: An Honest Discussion About Gift Exchange Games, from the Women’s Ministry Toolbox Podcast.
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Rethinking Christmas Traditions: An Honest Discussion About Gift Exchange Games
In the last post (here), I discussed the challenges, solutions, and alternatives for secret sister programs. The feedback I’ve received has solidified my stance. I heard from many leaders who have had to deal with hurt feelings, extravagant gift-giving, envy, and women who sign up but don’t participate. These are not isolated problems.
This post topic is in many ways similar…
What is a Christmas gift exchange game?
Christmas will be here before you know it and church groups will play Christmas gift exchange games. You might call them a Yankee gift swap, dirty Santa, or white elephant gift exchange.
Some groups regift unwanted gifts, some do gag gifts, and some set a spending limit of $5, $10, or $20. Most of the time a game is played where participants choose a wrapped gift, they unwrap it, but then it can be stolen by other people in the group.
Much like Secret Sister, some women love these types of activities and others don’t.
You probably have an opinion one way or the other. No matter which side you support, I’d like to ask you to read this post all the way through. There may be an angle you haven’t considered before. Maybe you’ll decide there are better things you could do at your small group, Bible study, or women’s ministry Christmas fellowship this year.
First, I want to walk through some of the concerns, then I’ll share some feedback from other women, and I’ll wrap things up with some alternative ideas.
4 Problems with Gift Exchange Games
To be clear, I’m specifically addressing games that include the option to take a gift from another person – whether that’s by the roll of a dice or a personal choice.
- There’s a high risk that someone will not be happy with the gift they take home. Even if the gifts exchanged are nice gifts, there’s a good chance someone will be upset that something they like was taken from them. There’s also a good chance there will be some envy or jealousy surrounding a popular gift. When I’ve participated there’s often one or two gifts that stand out above the rest that almost everyone hopes to go home with.
- Friendships can fracture when one friend takes a gift from another friend. I remember years ago at our mom’s group Christmas gift swap (one with used items) there was a plastic electric train set. I can still remember the names and faces of the two women who were involved in this swap. They were good friends, but not that night. One took the train from the other and she was literally in tears. What was supposed to be a happy and fun Christmas party no longer was. Everyone in the room witnessed the hurt. I couldn’t believe the train set wasn’t returned out of kindness.
- Gag gifts can cause a great deal of embarrassment. Even at a church event, people don’t always understand what’s appropriate. Most people don’t enjoy being the butt of a joke and even if it appears they do – do they really? We should be sensitive not to make our women uncomfortable.
- Stealing is wrong. Exodus 20:15 says, “You shall not steal.” Hang with me here, I know some of you think I’m being extreme. In my Introduction to Christian Ethics class this summer, we learned about how conduct, character, and goals matter. Our professor and book pointed out that an argument could be made that stealing in a game situation would not be a violation of the 8th commandment. Basketball, football, and soccer are all great examples. If we consider the conduct, character, and goal of a Christmas gift exchange, I see a difference. Players are encouraged to put their wants first and to take what they want from someone else no matter the impact.
Whether the goal is stealing gifts to get the best gift or trying to end up with the best of the gag gifts, neither approach glorifies God.
Back in 2014, I shared most of these same concerns in a blog post (you can see it here). I think I’ve received more comments on this one post than any other. I’ve clearly struck a chord.
Here are just some of the comments:
“I have never seen one where I did not witness or experience some kind of, if not hurt feelings, then at least letdown.”
“I completely get the feeling hurt during these games. We used to play them all the time at church leadership events (several different churches) and I can’t tell you how many times I have been hurt, taken home a nasty gift, or ended up with the same gift I brought because I refused to steal from someone else but people always stole from me. People have commented that no one ever gets hurt or people that do, spoil it for everyone else. I can tell you I hid it very well and no one at the party ever knew how hurt my heart was by the way I was treated or how embarrassed I was by some of the actions of others during the games. I remember going home and crying afterward and the hurt lingers in my heart whenever I think about playing these games again…I would never want someone to leave my party feeling the way I have after some of those experiences. It’s not about how mature they are, it’s about loving one another as Christ loved us. I want every person who enters my house to feel the love of Christ while there.”
“Wow! Are we really going to sulk and be jealous because someone got something we wanted or something nicer than us? Good practice of being happy for those who have something that we don’t. What about the commandment not to covet?”
“I don’t necessarily feel convicted about the stealing part, but it just seems mean-spirited and anti-Christmas to me. Competing and stealing to make sure I GET the best gift. We do it every year at my family gathering and I’m pretty sure I’ve cried ahead of time every year just because I hate it.”
“Just attended a gift exchange party where somebody got stuck with a soiled Santa garden gnome wrapped in a garbage bag. The lady accepted it graciously without grumbling. This speaks volumes about her heart. However, I don’t think Jesus would have brought a gift like this to the party. Let’s give what we would want to receive without embarrassing others. It isn’t funny or Christ-like. Let’s also practice the attitude of gratitude.”
While there were comments from both sides, those expressing hurt far outnumbered those who thought I was being overly sensitive.
Games that undermine the unity of our groups or have the potential to hurt the feelings of our women have no place in our ministries.
Please consider one of these alternative ideas instead:
10 Alternatives to Dirty Santa Games
- Give gifts to your homebound members, local nursing home, or women’s shelter.
- Ask everyone to bring a $5 gift and use the Left-Right Christmas Story or Left Right Nativity Story to distribute the gifts.
- Ask everyone to bring a $5 ornament and have an ornament exchange.
- Give the gift of time and volunteer together at a local food pantry, shelter, or Ronald McDonald House.
- Decorate Christmas cookies or cupcakes to take to the local hospital for the doctors, nurses, and staff.
- Plan a Christmas party for your local Women’s shelter or children’s home.
- Adopt children in need from a local school. Spend the night wrapping their gifts and writing our Christmas cards to them.
- Send packages overseas to men and women serving in the military.
- Bless a missionary with a care package and Christmas cards.
- Assemble the Gift of No Dishes together as an outreach into each woman’s neighborhood.
Today’s Toolbox Task:
- If your team was planning to have a Christmas gift exchange, talk through how you can ensure the exchange honors the feelings of all of your women.
- Prayerfully consider removing gift stealing from your exchange or swap the game out for an alternative idea.
Christmas events should be a time of fun and fellowship, with a focus on Christ’s birth. I pray your Christmas celebrations will honor God and honor your women.
You may want to read:
The Gift of No Dishes
Left Right Christmas Game
Left Right Nativity Story
Creative Christmas Event Ideas
How to Host a Gift Exchange
28 Gift Exchange Themes
The Best Christmas Gifts and Games for Your Women’s Ministry
Christmas Icebreaker Games