A Guide to Secret Santa Gift-Giving Etiquette

Is there anything more difficult than buying an inexpensive gift for a coworker you don't really know that well? Yes, probably. But not much! Here's what you should and shouldn't give.

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We're making our lists and checking them twice, or whatever it is you do with lists; we're shopping for others and ourselves; we're drawing the names of our workplace friends and our outside-the-workplace friends to give them the gifts we think they might like or at least be briefly amused by, all priced under, say, $10 or $20. That's right, it's Secret Santa Time! Is there anything more difficult than buying an inexpensive gift for a coworker you don't really know that well? Yes, probably. But not much!

For example, take the news of Senator Al Franken's recent Secret Santa gift exchange. The gifts were, well, weird. As Jillian Rayfield writes for Salon, according to an NBC News report the presents had to adhere to a $10 maximum. Gifts given included a VHS copy of the movie Tunnel Vision and a DVD of Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (which is kind of a fascinating documentary, for the record), a mahnomin porridge kit, Godiva chocolates (boring!), peanuts, various T-shirts, Mason jar wine glasses (nice), and, perhaps most ominously, a book entitled 1,000 Gardens You Should See Before You Die.

Secret Santa-ing can be difficult, but there are some guidelines that may be followed for better, less disturbing, less office-awkwardness-making gift-giving. For instance, don't give a book called 1,000 Gardens You Should See Before You Die. Don't give anything with Death in the title, or in the sentiment. As for what you should give ...

You Can Make Something (Within Reason). If you are really good at baking or cooking or, maybe, knitting or bejeweling sweaters or creating necklaces from tiny beads, and you know that your "Secret Santee" doesn't have a mortal allergy to key ingredients in your baked goods or celiac or a hatred of wool and all things knitted, or a small dog that likes to eat tiny beads, you may purchase materials in order to create these or such things and make them, wrapping them nicely, and tying them with a bow. There is no shame in the home-made gift, as long as it's a good gift. If in doubt, it's probably not a good gift.

You Can Give Booze. Do check whether your Secret Santee has any aversions—cultural, moral, physical, emotional, or otherwise—to alcohol. If not, this is an easy gift generally bound to satisfy or at the very least be easily regifted. A bottle of wine, a bottle of somewhat decent whiskey, a dram of the elixer of life, whatever he or she prefers. You can't go wrong, unless you drink it all for yourself and give only an empty bottle. Remember: The gift of garbage is not a good gift.

You Can Give Food (But Only Certain Kinds of Food). Like, as with the above, homemade baked goods. A box of chocolates (go high-ish-end and beautifully wrapped). A month's supply of Sriracha. Coffee, always coffee, the good kind. Bacon, if giftee eats bacon. Artisanal mayo, sure. But avoid the gift of quinoa, Grape Nuts (or any cereal), diet bars and energy shakes, and, apparently, grapefruit, or chips made with olestra, just because.

You Can Give Gift Cards. I am generally not a fan of the impersonal gift card, but in this case, if you know your coworker adores Starbucks or only eats at Chipotle, go ahead and get that coworker the Chipotle Big Eaters Pass, or the Starbucks Coffee for Days Go-Plan, or whatever it is those places are offering this time of year. Apple iTunes card, sure, why not? If it's something they'll actually use, the thought doesn't even have to count, and it ends up being sort of nicely personal, but not too much so.

You Can Give Generic, Regiftable Things. Nice, good-smelling candles, for instance, or a lovely stationary set, or that book everyone's been talking about this year, or a nice journal, or maybe Mason jar wine glasses—these may not be the most exciting or original of gift ideas, but they are fine, and will save you from a lot of passive-aggressive eye-rolling or smug talk in the bathroom. If your giftee doesn't need or want such items, he can pass them along to someone who does. Avoid, however, Santa figurines, or any figurines, or random crap that no one in your typical apartment or small house has room for—especially Christmas-themed stuff, which has to be stored 11 months out of the year. Think neutral, practical, inoffensive.

You Cannot Give Just a Bunch of Crap Sitting at Your Desk, or Stuff You Got for Free, or Something You Got at the Work Secret Santa Gift Exchange Last Year. Sure, maybe you're surrounded by books, or DVD screeners, or bags and bags of those free deli chips you get with your sandwiches. Your coworkers know that you got those things for free, however, and even if they don't, those are not acceptable gifts. You must try a little, at least. (You can, however, give that free stuff to your family. Mom has always wanted Post-its with your company's logo on them!)

You Cannot Give Money. It pains me to say this, but cold, hard cash is not an acceptable Secret Santa gift. We don't know why, but it seems somehow to be against company policy. Homemade IOUs fall into this same boat.

Be Careful With Gag Gifts. Yes, it's hilarious, a whoopee cushion or that fake poop is hilarious, to you, anyway, but maybe not to your coworker. Plus this ends up being stuff the recipient is going to have to just get rid of. And it's just not recommended to take your questionable, risque jokes into gifting territory. (Related: If this is a work exchange, avoid calling it "Dirty Secret Santa," just to keep things above board). Unless you know a gift is really funny, like solid inside-joke funny, and that your Santee will not only get it but also will laugh it up quite a bit over the gag gift (and most importantly will not sue), just go with something legit.

You Can Give Something That the Recipient Will Actually Like. You can! This is the best Secret Santa gift of all, and it's not that difficult. See our notes above. Stay tuned for tiny hints. Ask your Santee's friends what he or she likes, discreetly. Or, when the Santee leaves work for the evening, break into his email and search for "Christmas list." Due diligence and commitment to the cause cannot be underestimated, in work and in work gift-giving, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.