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12 Days of Christmas: The Origins of Secret Santa

12 Days of Christmas: The Origins of Secret Santa

Posted by Ima Ocon on 21st Dec 2020

Aside from singing carols, decorating Christmas trees, and holding family get-togethers, one of the most classic Christmas traditions is gift giving. While exchanging thoughtful gifts with loved ones is heartwarming, it can be stressful when you have several people on your list. A solution for that evolved, though: Secret Santa, which has become nearly standard practice in workplaces, clubs, and groups of all sorts during Christmas.

Secret Santa is generally popular in the Western world as well as other countries, although not always under the same name. It’s known as Kris Kringle in the UK and Kris Kindle (which can be traced back to mean “Christ child”) in Ireland. The game is simple: you are randomly assigned to give a gift to only one person in the group, usually by drawing from slips of paper with people’s names. In essence, you take on the role of a “Secret Santa”—and your recipient shouldn’t find out your identity until they receive the gift.

That’s the gist of it, but there are many optional rules and variations. For one, you often have to reveal yourself during the actual gift-giving, stepping up to hand the gift personally to the recipient. The gift giving can happen only once, or over several days where you come up with a series of smaller gifts before the main gift at the end. Another convenience is placing a budget limit on gifts, such as gifts under $50. Each person can also write down his or her wish list to save the Secret Santa from guesswork! Shamrockgift's list with gifts under 50$ will surprise you with practical, diverse and full of heritage options.

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The Secret Santa tradition goes a long way back, but a famous origin story ties it to Larry Dean Stewart, an American philanthropist and business-owner who gave anonymous gifts during Christmas. In fact, he handed out 100$ bills to people on the street. All in all, this reached nearly $1.3 million within 26 years, and New Yorkers even received $25,000 after the 9/11 attacks and thousands more after Hurricane Sandy. Eventually, when news about his identity spread around, he became a reluctant celebrity with a cult following, and he even founded the Society of Secret Santas.

Secret gift-giving has always been part of many cultures, though. Scandinavian countries had their own version with “Julklapp,” which literally means “Christmas-tapping.” No theatrical parties here—you simply knock on a neighbor’s door, open it, and leave the gift inside without being seen by anyone. A twist is that instead of writing the name of the recipient, you include just a brief, witty message. Likewise, in German folklore, there are “witches” or helper fairies that help Santa Claus to deliver gifts. These are the original Christmas elves!

There’s no denying how widespread Secret Santa has become. Businesses have taken advantage of it, with shops such as Amazon offering items under the category of Secret Santa gifts. Thanks to social media and the internet, it has taken on a whole new dimension, with Reddit holding the largest Secret Santa ever with more than 85,000 participants—philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates join in regularly! New Zealand even holds a nationwide Secret Santa every year over Twitter and last year the Prime Minister joined in.

Convenience may be one reason why Secret Santa has gained such a huge following, but underlying it is the infectious energy of giving and sharing that defines Christmas.

Initially published on December 19, 2020


Let us know your own Secret Santa traditions in the comments! And visit’s Christmas Specials for some ideas for your next assignment.