The Ornament Exchange Game: How to Play

Cute little kitten batting a red Christmas ornamentOrnaments will always be popular gifts around Christmastime, for reasons that are easy to understand. They symbolize the holiday season more than almost anything else. They fit into the perfect price range for token gifts. And, unlike many gift options, just about everyone can use one more.

For all those same reasons, a Christmas ornament exchange game is a fitting – not to mention fun – activity for a holiday party. So, how do you play? Well, for better or for worse, there’s no one “official” set of ornament exchange rules. If you’re hosting an ornament exchange party, here are some options to choose from:

White Elephant Ornament Exchange

Perhaps the most common type of ornament swapping involves the familiar “stealing” mechanic of a white elephant gift exchange. Players bring one wrapped holiday ornament, then take turns either opening a new gift or stealing a previously opened one (for detailed rules, see our main article). As with all gift exchanges of this type, it helps if the ornament pile includes a mix of the desirable, the undesirable, and the downright funny.

Ornament Exchange Poem

Ornaments work especially well for a left-right passing game, which revolves around the reading aloud of a special Christmas-themed poem. In this game, people sit in a circle and pass gifts left or right according to cues in the aforementioned poem (you can find the rules and a sample poem in this article). The main advantage of this game is that it goes quick, even with larger groups. Because it’s straightforward and not at all competitive, it also allows for both kids and adults to participate.

Pick an Ornament From the Tree

In this simple ornament exchange game, participants bring unwrapped ornaments and hang them on a Christmas tree as they arrive (a miniature tree that can fit on a tabletop is often best). People then take turns picking the ornament they would like from the tree. One fun alternative is to blindfold players and have them feel for an ornament – just like Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Random/Grab Bag

Okay, this one stretches the definition of “game.” However, if you’re looking for a truly simple way to dole out the ornaments, just randomize it. One way to do this is to assign a number to each wrapped ornament, then have players draw to see which one they get. Another option is to put the ornaments in a large sack and let players reach in and blindly take one.

Of all the great things about ornament exchange games, perhaps the greatest is that they make it easy for everyone to participate. By specifying the type of gift to bring, there’s less shopping and decision-making involved. You can even ask people to re-gift an ornament in their collection – because hey, who doesn’t have a few to spare?

Of course, it’s even easier on guests if the host provides all the ornaments. That’s probably not an option in most cases, but it could be the right choice if it’s a smaller group and/or you have the budget. Even if ponying up for everyone’s ornaments isn’t feasible, you might want have a few extra on hand in case people forget.

For more ideas on hosting an ornament exchange party – or any kind of gift exchange, for that matter – check out this article. Good luck, and Merry Christmas!

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Roberta Jeeves is author of the book White Elephant Gift Exchange: Rules, Themes, and Ideas for Hosting a Perfect Holiday Gift Swap. You can buy or borrow it at

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