Sneaky Santa – Yankee / Gift Swap for Remote Teams


Sneaky Santa - Yankee Swap for Remote Teams, on When I Have Time by Sara Rosso

I love working for a distributed company. I love it.


I *do* miss some of the in-office things, especially around the holidays. You see, I’m the instigator. I used to organize many in-office activities and events and I love having fun with my colleagues.

One of my favorite games is what I called “Sneaky Santa” aka “Babbo Furfante” in Italian, also what is known as a Yankee Swap to some. It’s like gift giving with a twist. You can steal.

It’s a lot of fun, but something I wrote off as impossible to do with a remote team. Until now. I spent some time figuring out the logistics of how we could do this inside Automattic, and while I think it’s too late to make this happen this year, I’m going to put myself on the hook to organize for next year!

And since you know I love spreadsheets, that’s the perfect tool to help manage this.

A little different from a white elephant exchange, where people recycle old / unwanted gifts, I think having new and desireable gifts is actually better because people will want to steal them more. It’s up to you, but I suggest encouraging people to put their best gift forward, and I usually suggest a new or gently used gift with a value of around $20.

Game Setup:

  • Enter names into “Name” column. Order doesn’t matter since you’ll be assigning a number randomly.
  • Assign people numbers randomly. The sequence generator from is a good place to do that. Re-order ascending via the “Pick Order” column. Now you have a clear order of who’s opening and when.
  • Now upload the gifts. Each participant needs a gift and two pictures of it: unwrapped, and wrapped. Each person uploads a picture of their gift, wrapped, into the “Wrapped Gift” column.
  • Assign a letter to each gift in “Gift ID” column, starting with A.
  • Create an “Unwrapped Gift” column to indicate which gifts have been opened. If you’re really cool, use conditional formatting to grey out the gift so it’s easily viewable.
  • Create a “Retired?” column to indicate which gifts are no longer available, indicated by an X.


  1. Participants pick gifts in order of their numbers.
  2. A person picks a gift via Gift ID, i.e. “Gift H.” The owner / giver of gift H needs to upload a picture of the opened gift into the “Opened gift” column plus a very short description so the participant can see what they’ve got!
  3. Participant #2 can steal #1’s gift, or choose an unopened gift. If #1’s gift is stolen, they can steal any other open gift or choose a new unopened gift. Any gift that’s not retired is fair game to be stolen.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

Logistic Notes:

  • In the interest of keeping things semi-speedy, limit ‘steals’ to two, that is, once a gift is opened, it can be stolen twice and after which it’s retired and out of rotation.
  • If your team or company is large, I suggest breaking into sub-groups of 20-25 to keep things faster and more manageable.
  • I recommend using something like Slack, Telegram, or another group messaging tool to facilitate the live game.
  • One person needs to be keeping track of who’s opened, and keep the game moving.
  • Afterward, the gift givers will send the recipients the gifts via postal mail. Might be worth making sure gift contents can cross borders before entering it into the game. 🙂
  • Alternatively, participants can use Amazon links or gifts that are actually on online stores (and ship directly from the sites to the participants after) but will still need to approximate the unopened gift somehow in a picture.

Here’s Sneaky Santa – Yankee Swap for Remote Teams spreadsheet! Let me know if you end up using this and/or which modifications or variations you use!

And if you really want to game the game, FiveThirtyEight actually has a method for you to win the Yankee Swap.

5 replies »

  1. My family does this during our holiday get-togethers. 🙂

    The only difference between our rules and yours are that, in our exchange, the person who goes first (i.e. #1) gets the very last turn in the game to steal a gift if they wish. Otherwise they never get a chance to steal, since they “open” the first gift before anyone else has anything. Slight improvement IMHO.

  2. Ha — that’s how we exchange gifts for my book club except that we hardly ever end up “stealing” because somehow, it always seems that the “right” person gets the “right” gift! Always fun to see your ideas, Sara. Happy holidays!

    • 🙂 Yes, I think in the end the stealing helps get the right gifts to the right people…I’ve also seen some trades go down post-game as well!

      Happy Holidays Alanna!!

  3. this sounds great! I have been trying to find a swap game where we can use it across our office locations, both here and Europe. Thank you for sharing.

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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