With money tight this holiday season, group gift exchanges can help trim expenses. There are lots of variations on the rules for the following games, but here are some basic ideas:
SECRET SANTA OR POLLYANA
This is a common tradition. A few weeks ahead of a holiday, all group members put their names in a hat and then each draws the name of a person. You keep the name a secret and buy a gift for the person, often according to a spending limits. The gifts are typically bestowed during a holiday party, and your personal "secret Santa" is revealed,
To make things run smoothly, the group can also appoint an in-the-know coordinator who makes sure no one gets a name they had last year, or who can collect and distribute wish lists. Some Web sites have been created to help manage the game.
The general idea of this group gift exchange is to steal your way to a great gift. Here's how it works:
Instead of bringing a gift for a designated person, each guest at your party brings a random present, with a cap on the cost.
Everyone draws a number from a hat. "Number 1" selects a random wrapped present first and unwraps it. The person with "Number 2" can either choose another wrapped present or take Number 1's present. And so on. If your gift is stolen, you get a new turn to either steal a gift or take an unwrapped one.
(Many people also limit the times a single gift can be stolen. So, say, whoever is the third stealer gets to keep it.)
When everyone has had a turn, the game can end or you can go around the circle again.
Be careful not to play with small children who don't take kindly to a present being whisked away. But grown-ups can get a kick out of it.
"It's a lot of fun when people throw ridiculous gifts in the pile," says Brian Kimura, an architect in Portland, Ore. who's played the game at work. "It's especially funny when the price cap is low, like $10. I once ended up with a pile of firewood."
NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON'T
Similar to the White Elephant, this game is good for big groups.
In this game, everyone brings a few wrapped presents to a party, from legitimate gifts to housewares to gags. The wrapped gifts all go in a central spot.
The host distributes pairs of dice, say one set down in front of every fifth person or so. Each player rolls the dice. Doubles earns players a gift of their choice and a chance to roll again. Play passes around the table, until all the gifts are taken.
At that point, the host sets a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, and doubles now earn players the chance to "steal" a gift from their friends. The pace of play usually quickens, and some players duel over specific gifts.
When time is up, everyone owns what they are left with. Unwrapping the gifts often proves amusing, when someone discovers that what was in the fancy, gold-wrapped giant box was actually a pack of toilet paper.
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
Sometimes, group gift exchanges work better as group gifts. Evette Rios, home and design expert on "Rachel Ray" and host of "G-Spot" on the Planet Green channel, says parents can band together and create something for all the kids on the block or in a play group.
For example, she suggests creating a neighborhood video game library. Each parent buys one of the latest video games and children can "sign out " the game for a period of a few weeks. "Kids go through video games so quickly and then Grand Theft Auto 2 is just sitting there -- why not pool resources?" she says.
What if you want don't want to exchange gifts as a group, but just want to give one as a group? A noble notion, but the person who has to organize that is usually in for some work.
Karen O'Neil, a Boston-area working mom, developed a new Web site this year called FrumUs (http://www.FrumUs.com) that allows the organizer to create an online envelope where people can contribute via a Paypal account or credit card, vote on gifts, comment and shop. "As a working mother, I was struck that there was no online solution for this endless stream of group gifts," she says.