Secret Santa gift-giving this year? We have a list of worst gifts you should never buy

‘Tis the season for festive feasts with loved ones, office parties and Secret Santa gift drawings, full of mystery and anticipation.

While choosing the perfect gift may come easily to some people, it’s not so simple for others, often leaving some people disappointed, embarrassed and in some cases, ashamed.

We did some digging to find out what Secret Santa faux paus people have encountered on Christmases past. Responses range from pregnancy tests to alcohol to Hello Kitty toasters.

We also talked to an expert to get tips on buying the perfect Secret Santa gifts.

Julian Givi is an assistant professor of marketing at West Virginia University's John Chambers College of Business and Economics who said there are two primary gift categories that come to mind for him.

There are generic gifts and then there are personalized gifts that suit people’s unique preferences. Generic gifts can include items like gift cards.

“It might not be the best gift in the world, so let’s just say an Amazon gift card is going to work,” he said. “ And oftentimes, a bottle of wine works for most people.”

Personalized gifts that match a person’s unique taste are also a plus, said Givi. For example, he’s a huge Buffalo Bills fan, so his Secret Santa couldn’t go wrong with some sort of team memorabilia.

Find out more about the worst Secret Santa gifts people have received, as well as Givi’s take on some of them below.

Worst Secret Santa Gifts

Gift # 1: Please, no more socks or clothing that miss the mark

It wouldn’t be a ‘Worst Secret Santa Gift’ list without socks, right?

One social media user said they were a victim of the sock Santa one year, while others said they received clothing that wasn’t their size.

Gift # 2: Alcohol and other gifts that fall into sensitive categories

Next on the list is alcohol, which one social media user pointed out is not something everyone enjoys.

Givi, who recommends a bottle of wine as a gift, says it’s important to do your homework beforehand. Make sure your recipient actually drinks before gifting them with a bottle of wine, bubbly or other kinds of alcohol.

Bottles of alcohol.
Bottles of alcohol.

And alcohol isn’t the only thing you may want to avoid depending on who your recipient is. Sugar is also something to keep in mind.

Facebook user and diabetic patient Cheryl Irrizary shared not one but two stories about gifts that left a sour taste in her mouth.

Her Secret Santa got her “Something with a lot of sugar,” she wrote on Facebook, adding  that they also got “something for my car when I lost my car years ago and don't have one anymore.”


Gift # 3: Thanks but no thanks to recycled or used items

This one’s short and not-so-sweet: no one wants your used or recycled items, social media users say.

Gift # 4: Say no to home decor and kitchen appliances

While some Secret Santa gift-givers have played it safe, others have shown up with very specific items such as home decor.

Post user Desert Girl said the decorations she has received weren't quite her style and sat around her house "for years collecting dust” until she finally donated it.

A Cusimax stainless-steel 4-slice toaster with a large LED display.
A Cusimax stainless-steel 4-slice toaster with a large LED display.

Another social media user said their Secret Santa got them a pink Hello Kitty toaster one year.

“It left a hello kitty of untoasted bread in the center of each slice,” wrote Facebook user Richard Rochat.

Givi said a gift like this could work if you know a person is obsessed with Hello Kitty, but if not, it’s most likely best to leave home appliance purchases up to them.

Gift # 5: Pregnancy tests, condoms and other health-related items

A common theme among unhappy recipients seems to be gifts related to sensitive topics such as sexual and reproductive health, including condoms, according to one subreddit.

And the gifts didn't stop there.

“My sorority did one once and one girl got a Bible and pregnancy test,” wrote Instagram user @lucisullivan.

Reader Anne Casey said she once received an unused hospital urine catheter and bag, while another social media user said their Secret Santa got them a gift certificate to the local gym.

Givi said while gym memberships can make good gifts for people you know are trying to lose weight, like a sibling or loved one. Otherwise, not so much.

“With (Secret Santa) being a public setting like this, it’s best to avoid any kind of gift that might otherwise lead to some kind of embarrassment,” he said.

Gift # 6: That's it. We've had it with gag gifts

Gag gifts are common during Secret Santa events but they aren't always a hit.

Some readers reported gag gift fails such as:

  • "A pack of batteries with a note saying ‘gift not included’” – @abohle via Instagram

  • "A book that was upside down and backwards" – Kelly Craig via Facebook

  • "A gag gift that was a roll of toilet paper with jokes printed on it. The person didn’t know it wasn’t a gag gift exchange so everyone else brought things like wine, blankets, gift cards." – Christina Moreschi via Facebook

The takeaway? Make sure if you get a gag gift, it’s actually a gag gift party or the recipient is into that sort of thing.

An individual hands a gift to someone.
An individual hands a gift to someone.

Gift # 7: No gift at all

Also on the list of worst Secret Santa gifts is no gift at all.

“My secret pal didn't participate,” wrote Facebook user Judy Mott-Winn.

Givi, from West Virginia University, said it’s OK to say from the start that you can’t participate in Secret Santa events. However, if funds are low or there’s another reason you can’t partake, there’s an opportunity for low or no-cost gifts as well.

“One thing that I definitely champion and think is very important is the idea of sentimental gift-giving,” he said. “Maybe you do something like create a scrapbook or write a handwritten note telling this person how important or how special they are to you.”

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Other tips to make your Secret Santa gift-giving run smoothly

Givi said while people who host Secret Santa festivities typically set price ranges, gift-givers should take into account their own budget.

If you’re not sure what your budget is or you have a hard time deciding, $20 to $50 is typically safe, he said.

The budget is vital to avoid a real-life Michael Scott situation, he said, alluding to the 2005 “The Office'' episode where one character goes rogue and buys an expensive iPod for Secret Santa.

Once other employees get wind of the gift, they scheme to take it home themselves. While the episode makes for good TV, it’s probably best to avoid awkward Christmas parties like this in real life.

“You don't want people to feel bad that they're not spending as much as others,” Givi said, adding that going over the budget can create awkwardness, embarrassment and insecurity.

He also said Secret Santa doesn’t just have to be an office event. Some folks have replaced traditional gift-giving within their families with Secret Santa. Instead of buying everyone gifts, each family member buys a gift for one person, he said. Many people look to things like the Secret Santa Generator to draw names virtually.

It’s cost-effective and takes some of the pressure off for the holidays, he said, adding that some people aren’t giving gifts at all. Instead, couples are spending dough on trips or cruises in lieu of gifts.

Givi added that he recently worked with a company to create an app that helps people become better gift-givers. The startup app, Hugsi, allows people to take surveys and figure out their gift language.

“You fill this out … and then we'll tell you a gift language,” he said. “What we do is we use AI to recommend products to people who visit your profile.”

But whether you buy a gift or make one, Givi said what’s most important is the thought put into it.

“There is an opportunity to really show thoughtfulness and care,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that recipients value that.”

Mallorie Sullivan contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secret Santa gifts: What not to buy this Christmas