Many years ago, during the Christmas season of 2004, when our children were still young and under our roof, my wife and I wanted to do something different to add more meaning to our Christmas holiday.
The commercialism and noise really seemed to overpower the true meaning of what Christmas was all about, which bothered us.
The stores already had Christmas items and decorations proudly on display before Halloween. It wasn't enjoyable how the Christmas holiday season's merchandising seemed to be expanding longer year after year.
Everyone seemed to be hustling and bustling about from store to store (and sometimes shoving) in competition to purchase the latest fad gifts for their children.
The movie “Jingle All The Way” comes to mind. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s workaholic character Howard Langston desperately tries to find the coveted Turbo-Man toy for his son in a last-minute Christmas Eve shopping spree. It was all about obtaining the prized gift so that his son felt “special” at Christmas.
The true meaning of Christmas for Christians like our family is to celebrate the gift of the birth of Jesus. That thought prompted an idea, which I believe initially came from my wife.
Christmas is supposed to be all about giving and serving our fellow man, not all this commercialism and gift coveting. So we decided to take our gift-giving to a new level.
We wanted to introduce a different gift other than the ones you can buy in a store. One that truly came from the heart and would teach our children about the Christmas holiday's true meaning, as well as strengthen our family relationships.
A New Gift-Giving Tradition Is Born
My wife’s idea was to draw names and do a “Secret Santa” gift exchange within our family. The catch was that each of us would make the gift for the receiver. Each person could purchase supplies to make it, but that was the extent of it.
No pre-made gifts were allowed.
With that initial plan in mind, we gathered our kids together just after the Thanksgiving holiday to explain our new gift-giving tradition idea and the guidelines that were to be followed.
My wife then wrote each of our names on slips of paper and placed them in a hat, and we each drew a name. Our kids’ ages at the time were 8, 10, 12, and 14, and we were all very excited about embarking on this new gift-giving challenge.
It touched our hearts as parents that our kids were so enthusiastic about this new idea. I can’t remember specifically who had whom, but I do remember how it totally changed the spirit of that holiday season for our family.
With our new gift project in our minds constantly during December, we acted differently and found other ways to serve each other.
Throughout the month, we would walk by closed doors with signs that proudly displayed “Do not enter — Secret Santa in progress,” with faint sounds sawing, scissors cutting, a sewing machine running, and even hammering.
We even remember going by one of our son’s rooms, and it smelled like he was burning down the house. Later, to find out his gift was a beautiful cutting board with a large initial wood-burned into it.
Gifts were being made with love. My wife and I couldn’t be happier with the complete transformation of Christmas that year. We still provided other gifts for our children to open on Christmas morning, but those unique gifts were opened first.
As Christmas morning came with great anticipation (starting at 5 am), we read the story of Jesus being born, and the first gifts that we opened were Secret Santa. Everyone was so excited to unveil the gift they had made for their secret person.
I can’t remember specifically what gifts were exchanged that first year, but I do remember how touched we all were by how much love, attention, and effort was put toward the gifts. Many tears of joy were shed as each of us opened our gifts.
Looking back on the years that followed as we continued this tradition, I was always amazed at how the gifts reflected how well we knew each other.
Usually, each person would make a craft related to a hobby that the other person loved to do, such as skateboarding, surfing, sailing, painting, photography, theatre, etc. Some gifts have been picture slideshows of memories from the year, framed letters of gratitude, many wood-burning, paint, sewing, wood crafts, or other artistic projects.
It has been such a touching experience as we unveil our gifts each year to see how creative they are and how they are tailored to each individual.
I wish I would have recorded what we gave each other that first year, but now the gifts aren't as important as I think about it now. What is significant are the unbreakable family bonds formed each year as we continued this tradition.
Honestly, my wife and I would be thrilled if the Christmas gift exchange was done at that point, as there is always so much love and appreciation for each other in the air.
If you ask me what gifts I’ve received over the years, I am more likely to remember the Secret Santa gifts. They came from the heart and many times were lots of hours of work all for me.
Family Traditions Pay Dividends for Many Years To Come
According to the article “How Family Traditions Help Form Stronger Bonds” published on VeryWellFamily.com, establishing family traditions have many benefits for not only your immediate family but also for future generations to come.
Often, family traditions provide families with a sense of identity and belonging as well as stir up positive feelings and memories. They also are frequently reminisced about and talked about within the family. Family traditions also provide a sense of continuity across generations. In other words, they are a way of transferring the family’s values, history, and culture from one generation to the next.
Our Secret Santa gift exchange tradition continues to this day, 16 years later. The pool of gift-givers/receivers has increased as all 4 of our children have significant others. It is exciting for us to see that they also look forward to this tradition.
It is such a joy to see our family expanding and continuing many of the traditions we established long ago. We are also making new traditions as we continue to grow and move into different life phases.
Secret Santa Gift Exchange How-To Guidelines
If you are looking for a fun new family tradition during the Christmas holiday that is guaranteed to melt everyone’s hearts and bring your family closer together, you can follow these guidelines to make the gift exchange enjoyable.
1. Gather the family together 3–4 weeks before Christmas to draw names.
To ensure that each person has ample time to craft their gift idea and make their gift, provide everyone plenty of time. We usually try to draw names by November 25th or shortly thereafter.
Place name slips in a hat for each person to draw one name. If all family members are not physically located in the same area, you may have to get creative (like we had to this year) and use Zoom or FaceTime to facilitate the name drawing.
Name drawing rules:
- Keep the name you draw a secret and only reveal it on gift exchange day.
- You can’t have the same person 2 years in a row.
- Spouses cannot have each other. Our thought is it helps the spouses develop bonds with other family members.
- If a person draws an invalid name, they put that name back in the hat and draw another until their name is valid.
- Sometimes as the name drawing reaches the last couple of people, no valid names are left for them to draw. At that time, everyone puts their names back, and the name drawing starts over.
2. Each gift must be handmade — no pre-made gifts allowed.
The idea is to make a unique individualized gift for the name you drew. It could be a craft of some sort, be creative. The key is to be as personal as possible.
This gift is a token of your love for them and something they will likely cherish for many years to come. That doesn't mean it couldn't be practical too.
Here are some suggestions to offer to everyone to spark some gift ideas for the person they have:
- What hobbies do they have?
- Do they like a particular sport or a sports team?
- Do they like a specific outdoor activity?
- Do they like all things kitchen or home-related?
- Are they into personal growth?
- Are they into health & fitness?
To keep it somewhat simple and fair, you may want to set a max budget across the board to purchase gift-making supplies. A meaningful gift doesn’t need to be expensive to make.
3. Keep your name a secret until gift exchange day.
I can’t stress this enough. Keeping the “Secret” in Secret Santa adds excitement to the actual gift exchange day.
Take great care to work on your gift and hide it someplace out of sight so that the receiver cannot be discovered by someone else. Knowing the giver lessens the fun.
Our Secret Santa gift tradition remains one of my family’s highlights of the Christmas holiday, and I am confident it will be for many years to come.
It is my hope as our children’s families grow, they will adopt this tradition so that they too can enjoy their own precious memories as we have when they were still young and living in our home.
I am so grateful that my wife was prompted many years ago to find a way to add new meaning to our holiday season amidst all the hustle and bustle that occurs at that time of year.
As stated, this tradition has brought us even closer together as a family. It has provided a great way to welcome our children’s spouses into our family and strengthen our bond with them.
I feel sure that if you are looking to develop stronger family bonds and nurture the true spirit of giving, this is a great way to accomplish that purpose.