This holiday season has been rough. Cases of COVID-19 are surging across the country, and both the federal government and local authorities in multiple states have asked people to forgo Christmas parties and celebrate at home. That doesn’t mean gift-giving is cancelled, though.
Some websites have been doing digital Secret Santas for years, and you can get in on the fun too. But finding the right online platform to organize a socially distanced gift exchange can be hard, as you may find out too late that you’ve screwed up—after names have been drawn, emails sent, and hours spent trying to explain to your not-so-tech-savvy parents how to use a wish list.
To save you some time and headaches, we did the research for you and came up with the best Secret Santa platforms. Consider it our gift to you.
Too basic for its own good: SecretSantaOrganizer.com
Like most of the platforms on this list, Secret Santa Organizer has the basics: It lets you draw names, send anonymous messages, and ship invites with the time and URL of your gathering. But unlike the rest of these platforms, it gives you the option to request that all your data be deleted when you’re done.
The problem is that there’s not much more than that. You can’t make exclusions when drawing names—so your mother doesn’t get your dad, for example—and even though it allows you to create wish lists, the interface is so unfriendly that you can only do so through a link that’s emailed to you when you draw names. If you’re already on the platform managing the event, there’s no way to click your way to that same page. And even when you manage to create a wish list, you’ll realize the interface is just a list of URLs—there are no preview displays or other fields to elaborate on the item you’ve chosen.
On the bright side, the platform is simple and you can start right away by setting a date for the gift exchange, a budget, and the names and emails of the people in your party (including yourself). Logging into Secret Santa Organizer is also a breeze and only requires you to click on a link sent to your inbox. This spares you from the old way of signing up by creating and confirming a password, which is a small detail, but a nice one.
Result: 2 out of 5 ?
Good but meh: SneakySanta.com
Functionally, Sneaky Santa isn’t bad, as it has all the features you’d expect: You can send invites, draw names, make exclusions, write messages, and create wish lists. In fact, it offers the most flexibility on this list when it comes to giving your loved ones some gift inspiration.
The platform isn’t associated with any store or vendor, so you can paste any URL into your wish list. You can also add interests or hobbies, or simply drop the name of a store you like without specifying a particular item.
If you’re including kids (or someone who doesn’t want to deal with learning another platform), you can start a wish list for them without having to create a separate account. The downside is that this sets you as that person’s contact, which means that when names are drawn, you’ll need to tell them who to give a gift to.
But visually, oof. It takes the prize for worst interface of the bunch because it’s unattractive and unintuitive. Another drawback is that everyone has to create an account with a password to access Sneaky Santa, and the platform doesn’t provide easy login alternatives such as using your Facebook or Google accounts. But if you’re planning to use the same setup next year, you can use the same account and group, and the platform will automatically exclude this year’s picks for everybody, so people won’t have to give a gift to the same person two years in a row.
Finally, if setting a budget is important to you, look elsewhere, as this is one of the few basic features it doesn’t have.
Result: 3 out of 5 ?
Too much for what you actually need: Elfster
Elfster seems to have it all, but the devil’s in the details. You can draw names, make exclusions, draft wish lists, and, when we’re able to gather physically again, you’ll be able to organize your gift exchange party by adding a time and place to your invites. The interface is nice and friendly, though a bit cluttered. But it’s intuitive and easy to use, so even the least tech-savvy of your friends will be able to work it without your help.
To start, Elfster will require you to create an account, though it offers login alternatives using Google, Apple, or Facebook. Unlike the rest of the platforms on this list, name-drawing happens on a date you set when you create your event. But before people know who their Secret Santa is, anybody on the list can invite more people to join by sending them a link. Elfster is also the only platform on this list where you can opt out from your own event, so if you’re feeling like a Grinch but are your family’s designated IT specialist, you can set everything up without having to partake in any gift-giving.
Like Sneaky Santa, Elfster lets you start a wish list for a child or anybody who can’t manage their own profile, but you’ll need to create another account with a new email and password. Making wish lists is easy: You can search for specific products from sites such as Amazon, Nordstrom, Zappos, or Dick’s Sporting Goods right from Elfster, and add them directly to your wish list. And since there won’t be an actual event for the exchange of gifts this year, you can plug in your address so your Secret Santa can send your present straight to your door.
It’s important to know that unlike the rest of the sites on this list, Elfster is not only a Secret Santa site, but more of a gift-giving social media platform. This means you can add friends and create events and you’ll get notifications when there’s a birthday coming up. This may be a little too much to deal with if you only want to make sure the couples in the family don’t draw each others’ names, or if you’re uncomfortable sharing personal information just so you can participate in some seasonal festivities.
Result: 4 out of 5 ?
The grand winner: DrawNames.com
A great balance between options and simplicity, DrawNames has all the features you want a Secret Santa platform to have, while remaining user-friendly. The fact that you don’t have to confirm passwords and input captchas before you even start is exactly the stress-free experience one needs this time of the year.
Wish lists are easy, and even though they work well, they may be the least appealing aspect of this platform. For starters, you won’t find as many options as Elfster when it comes to vendors, as DrawNames is only integrated with Amazon. Also, this feature is not as flexible as on Sneaky Santa. You can paste URLs as text in the Hobbies/Interests field, but this space is not optimized, so you won’t see a content preview.
Beyond easy signups and invites, one of the best things about DrawNames is its interface, which is clean and utterly intuitive. This may seem like a small detail compared to the features this or any site on this list offers, but it is not. This year, more than ever, holidays will be online and the easier it is to use a platform, the easier it will be for us to share our time with our loved ones. And that is the real gift.
Result: 5 out of 5 ?