the person who got a bedpan in the office gift exchange, and other tales of holiday gifting woes

Every December, I’m inundated with questions about gift giving at work: Are you supposed to buy a gift for your boss? What if you’d prefer not to but colleagues pressure you to chip in for a group gift? How much are you supposed to spend on coworkers, if anything? And are you supposed to be pretend to be grateful for a terribly gift from your employer?

At Slate today, I wrote about our angst over holiday gifts at work, including the problem with giving frozen turkeys to 200+ people the day before Thanksgiving, the manager who gave everyone bags of thumbtacks, the problem with Dirty Santa, and more. You can read it here.

{ 189 comments… read them below }

  1. SophieChotek*

    And I thought the toilet bowl cleaner I once got from a family member was bad…at least it was more useful (thus far) than an (unused) bed pan!

    1. kkb*

      I’m trying to decide if bedpan is better or worse than the (unopened) enema kit someone put into a white elephant exchange at my previous job.

    2. KylieHR*

      My mom once got used scented shelf liner paper from her mother. She won a radio contest for worst Christmas gift for that one.

    3. Clay on my apron*

      I know this is not work related, but.

      I got an ashtray. As an engagement present from my husband’s first cousins. We don’t smoke.

      The same family gave us a garden gnome as a wedding gift. With no irony.

      And they bought my husband a small box of chocolates as a birthday gift. They number about 20 people so we worked out that there was approximately one chocolate per gifter.

      At the time we were offended, horrified and amused in equal measure. With the benefit of age, it’s now just funny and makes for a much better story than more appropriate gifts would have done.

      1. The Dread Pirate Buttercup*

        I’ve given a horrible garden gnome as a wedding present — but it was bundled with an Airsoft grenade launcher and ammo. I was there when they used it, and it was *splendid.*

    4. I've got AskAManager on speed dial!*

      Recipient should have baked a kitty litter cake with *ahem* sized “kitty leavings”! And gifted right back to giver.

    5. Arjay*

      Tampons. Tampons in my stocking. From my mom. When I was a teenager.

      In her defense, she often put toiletry items in our stockings – a new toothbrush, shower gel… She just got carried away that year!

      1. Banker chick*

        Ha ha. The first year I lived with my husband, he asked his mom what he should stuff my stocking with. She said toiletries etc… He headed to CVS and one of the things he grabbed was a bag of cotton balls. Except they wouldn’t fit in the stocking. So he wrapped them and put them under the tree. And weren’t they the first thing I unwrapped Christmas morning…

    1. Antilles*

      I don’t know about the bed pan either, but I actually think the thumbtacks are pretty self-explanatory:
      Shoot, I forgot to get gifts for my employees! It’s December 23rd, no time to shop! Quick, what do I have available? [Frantic searching through desk drawers]. Oh, yeah, a box of thumb tacks. Wait, I don’t have enough to give everybody a box, so uh, nine each, I think I have enough for that. Uh oh, I don’t have any wrapping paper…[Frantic looking around, gaze falls on lunch box]. Oh yeah, our kitchen keeps a box of plastic baggies, that kind of counts as wrapping, doesn’t it?

    2. pony tailed wonder*

      My aunt once got me a never used bedpan for Christmas. I was in high school at the time and I used it for popcorn. I loved it. There were certain family members who were grossed out by my eating food from it though.

    1. Amber Rose*

      We get gift cards to the local major grocery store chain so we can buy our own turkey (or whatever).

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        We got one once to NoveltyGroceryStore that is right next door to BigBoss’s house…and 15 miles from everyone else’s. And my husband misplaced it, so basically there’s a $50 slip of paper somewhere in a box of his clutter. Sigh.

      2. pony tailed wonder*

        I think this might be another ‘not everyone can have sandwiches’ debate. Nothing will work for everyone but some things work for most.

    2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      I’m partial to a Target gift card because it’s so useful and no shipping delay, but Amazon would be second. I do, however, dislike those Visa gift cards — I’ve found them to be a problem to actually use.

      1. Liane*

        Let me guess–Visa still treats them like a regular credit card with a credit limit? If you try to charge over the limit on your CC, Visa declines it & does the same thing if there’s less on your gift card than the total purchase. As a former customer service rep at a Ginormous Retailer, I still don’t know which is worse–trying to spend mine (former ISP gave them out) or tender customers’ Visa GCs.

        Tips for how to use them if you get one:
        1-Best option is to use it toward a purchase of more than the amount, in a brick & mortar store. It’s easy for the cashier to split the tender for the GC’s face value.
        2–If you use it for a lesser purchase, note the exact balance, so you can tell the cashier next time, so they can tender it properly and quickly. And *don’t* Rinse & Repeat.
        3–If you forget the balance, call the number or go to website on the back of the GC & note it down. **Before you get in the checkout line** to save everyone time & trouble.
        4–Save everyone more time & trouble by not asking the cashier if they can check the balance–surprise, they can’t. Also, said cashier & everyone behind you in line will start contemplating your painful demise–NOT a sentiment suitable for any winter holiday I’ve heard of.

        1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

          I’ve had Visa decline it even if it’s within the amount on the card (don’t know why), and usually the card balance is such a low amount that I end up just not using it at all because it’s too many hoops to jump through. I’ve called the numbers and then they want me to “register” the card by providing an address and phone number etc. NO THANKS for a gift card of about $20 or less. It’s just better to give a card to a specific store or no gift card at all.

        2. Teapot librarian*

          I use those Visa gift cards to buy other gift cards that I would use myself, so either I’ll put the money on my Starbucks or Dunkin account, or I’ll buy an Amazon gift card for myself. Then there’s no worry about trying to use it at an actual store or to keep track of the balance.

          1. A Non E. Mouse*

            Seconding this – when my husband or I end up with just a few dollars on the card, we just add it to our Amazon gift card balance. MUCH easier to deal with that way.

          2. Half-Caf Latte*

            Amazon is genius. I’ve typically used them to pay a cell or internet bill, really any utility that takes credit cards, and won’t immediately try to refund you any overpayments

          3. Cacwgrl*

            HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?!?!! I have a vanilla Visa card i want to put the few dollars left on my Starbucks account but it’s not letting me do it in the app.

      2. CAA*

        My trick with Visa gift cards is to immediately use them to reload my Amazon gift card balance. This way you always get 100% of the Visa balance and they can’t charge you any of the monthly maintenance fees if you forget to use the card in a timely fashion.

          1. Liane*

            I didn’t know that one either.

            Ginormous Retailer only allowed you to pay with debit or cash when buying gift cards, so they weren’t out the money if someone paid with a bad check or stolen credit card.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              You buy Amazon gift cards from Amazon directly. So you’re not dealing with the same protections of retailers.

        1. I should be working ...*

          I got a virtual visa from a buy-this-type-of-teapot-and-get-a-refund deal. Made a purchase with it but had roughly $2 left on the card and thought, I’ll never see that money again. This hack is PERFECT!

      3. GreyjoyGardens*

        When I have to get gift cards for people where there’s a limit (like $20) or a lot of small-value cards for a whole department, I’m partial to Target and Trader Joe’s – $20 or $25 goes a long way with these stores, and they sell both necessities and fun stuff.

    3. Anti-Amazaon*

      I boycott Amazon on principle (they are the WalMart of cyberspace); I haven’t purchased anything from them for 10+ years. I would not want this gift. Cash or a cash-equivalent gift card would be better. Then people can chose to patronize stores they want.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Cash is taxable. That’s the point of gift cards (they’re taxable too but you’ve got to get pinged for an audit first, so most people roll the dice).

      2. submerged tenths*

        Solidarity on the No-Amazon (and no WalMart)!
        Of course, my poor boss used to get everyone Lowes/Home Depot gift cards until the complainers started in. Now we get WalMart gift cards. Sigh.

      3. Works in IT*

        Amazon has their uses. I can’t find a better source of authentic Japanese action figures than a third party vendor on Amazon (NOT FAKES!!!), I use my grandmother’s Kindle, which has a lot of sentimental value, I couldn’t find the right size linen for my latest craft project anywhere but Amazon (why is antique white so hard to find -_-), and, most importantly, the last time I ordered from Barnes and Noble (cause supporting real bookstores is important) the book arrived, a week late, in a package with a hole torn in it that was literally so big you could drop the book out through the hole. I buy a ton of real books in addition to my Kindle books, but since that incident I order them from Amazon if I can’t find them at the local Barnes and Noble. I do not want the incident to happen again.

        1. AnonBookReader*

          …and in my entire (admittedly small and rural) county, there is NOT ONE SINGLE BOOKSTORE. Not one. So Amazon it is.

          1. Works in IT*

            There’s a bookstore in my county, but it’s heavily skewed towards magazines that tourists might want to read, so I drive two hours to another county every six months to stock up on the kinds of books I don’t want on my kindle so I can take notes in them.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          As someone who’s had family and friends work at Amazon, we’ve confirmed they’re very bad, no good, etc.

          And we all still use the service. We’re on a budget, I’m not yet rich enough to hold myself up to higher standards. I was raised not to cut off my nose to spite my face.

          Every business has an ugly underbelly, I’ve known quite a few boutique owners to be vile inhumane monsters as well. So much for supporting only small businesses!

          1. PhyllisB*

            In our town, if you don’t shop at Walmart, Sam’s or Books-A- Million, there is not much choice. Of course I would love to support locally owned book stores, grocery stores, ect. but there are none. We do have some local clothing stores and restaurants, and I do shop at those when feasible. And Amazon? Well, I don’t do much shopping through them, but my husband and son would say you will pry their Amazon Prime accounts out of their cold dead hands.

        3. Seeking Second Childhood*

          For what it’s worth, Barnes&Noble is one of those stores where they’ll order to the store for you. So if you have one near you, no need to go through hoops at all. Find it on, call the store, and go pick it up when they let you know it’s there. You’ll get to see the condition before taking it to the register.

          1. Works in IT*

            The nearest one is two hours’ drive away, sadly. Not close enough to make driving back up to pick up books I ordered to the store worth it.

      4. anon today and tomorrow*

        I think it’s honestly the easiest gift card to give to a group of people because it’s online and not a physical store employees might not be able to get to, and it allows them to buy whatever they want.

        With cash you run into tax issues in the workplace and some workplaces have rules about giving cash gifts, and a lot of the cash0equivalent gift cards charge you a fee to even use them.

          1. PhyllisB*

            Yes. I discovered that when as a bonus my company gave us $100.00 gift cards. They forgot to take out taxes on them, so it came out of our next paycheck. :(

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          I’m very lucky to live in a place with not one, not two, but THREE Trader Joe’s within a ten-mile radius. This means that TJ’s are the absolute favorite cards to give and get (you can get so much for a smaller-value card like $25). But I can see that Amazon would be a better bet if you don’t know whether someone can get to a physical store.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I believe cash-equivalent fees are dependent by state law. I had one card wither away to nothing before I remembered to use it — and that very year the state put in rules against it.

        3. Michaela Westen*

          I find it hard to shop at Target. They have few things I use. They recently built a Target Express near work, but I don’t shop there because they have never had what I was looking for.
          I have to make a special trip/ fit in a stop at the bigger Target so I only go there once or twice a year when I run out of toilet cleaner.
          Amazon has much better selections, you can buy almost anything there.

      5. OhNo*

        There are programs/companies that let you give a certain dollar amount, and your employees can choose which store they want the gift card for, which in my opinion are way better for gifting large crowds of people. I’m biased, though, because I work in a call center that supports such a program.

  2. Adlib*

    We always do a white elephant exchange, and it’s pretty much gift cards/booze every year. I stopped trying to be creative when last year the mini paint/canvas set I got wound up with a lady who said she’d give it to her kid. (It was actually for anybody – not solely kid-themed!) This year? A margarita set with a mini bottle of tequila. I’m looking forward to watching the grabbing! (I just hope for a Starbucks card like last year.)

    1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

      I’ve enjoyed putting crumpled cash in one of those clear plastic ornaments. Everybody wants it. And it’s still almost an actual gift.

      1. Antilles*

        At my old job, one person was notorious for just spending the $20 limit on scratch-off lottery tickets in an envelope. Zero effort, zero thought, zero time invested.
        Every year, it was the first gift to hit the “gifts can only be stolen X times” limit.

        1. kittymommy*

          This. I am constantly amazed (and TBH involved) in how much the scratch off tickets are fought for. We have a director here that goes around to all the assistants with scratch offs. She spread then out and you choose which one you want (she also brings me any leftovers).

          I used to do youth counseling at my church and every year one of the kids brought the plastic ornament filled with cash. Always number 1 to go and probably the cheapest gift in the exchange.

        2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

          We were just joking with my boss about that the other day. He kept insisting it would be awful for the giver if recipient were to win big, and most of the rest of us were horrified at the thought the recipient would win nothing at all — what a great present! nothing.

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Scratch cards are fun, though! I’m as happy with the two minutes of enjoying the hope vs. getting a gift card I might or might not want to use.

          2. Antilles*

            I think the key is that this was a relatively small cost limit and being compared to everything else. It’s hard to get too upset when it was like a $15 limit or whatever; even if you lose on ALL 15* tickets, it’s not like you’re suddenly holding nothing when other people are holding fantastic prizes.
            Besides, like I said, the person who ended up with the tickets usually themselves chose to ‘steal’ the gift as part of the exchange, which probably also helped ameliorate the hurt feelings.
            *FWIW, this never happened in the years I was there. Nobody ever won even a medium sized prize, but there was always at least one $1 or $2 winner in the batch of 10-15 scratchers; most games have like a 1-5 or 1-10 chance or so chance of winning (as a cynically manipulative way to avoid completely discouraging people).

        3. That girl from Quinn's house*

          I worked at a small business (never. again.) that did White Elephant/Yankee Swap at their Christmas party.

          The owners decided to be generous and bought a few low-value items, but stuck a $100 bill into them. What ensued was a bunch of broke college kids and low-income employees fighting over the cash.

          It was icky.

          1. CatMintCat*

            My gift in this year’s exchange was a Christmas elf toilet seat cover. What the actual … ?

            I would have loved a gift card.

        4. Parenthetically*

          Yes! My uncle used to use scratch-offs as the gift tags on Christmas presents and I will never not think that’s brilliant. Scratch-offs are so fun!

  3. danr*

    This goes back quite few years. For my first year at my new company I joined the Secret Santa exchange in my department. This produced a big dilemma since I was the only male. What to get??? The person decided on aftershave as a safe gift. Completely forgetting that I have a full beard.

    1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

      We fill out little slips of paper with general suggestions to help with this in our Secret Santa exchange. So when you draw a name, you’re actually drawing the slip of paper said person filled out (with their name, of course!).

      Stuff like favorite snacks, sports team/characters, office supplies wanted, etc were listed (pre-printed categories to help with brainfarts)
      We also have a section for “DO NOT EVER” for things like allergies and things that people just do not want.

  4. Foreign Octopus*

    I remember a story in the UK news last year (I think it was on This Morning or something) about a woman who received a puppy in a Secret Santa gift exchange. She was horrified but she saw that it was properly rehomed, thankfully, but who thinks a puppy is a good idea?!

    1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      That’s awful! I love dogs, but such a horrible idea. Sounds like one of my mom’s friends – she was always gifting animals, whether anyone wanted it or not, because she was a steamroller. I got a hamster and a couple of hermit crabs from her growing up…my parents were not pleased.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        NO LIVE ANIMALS for gifts. Period. I bet your parents were not happy. “Giving the kids live critters as gifts” is probably in the Top 5 of Things You Can Do To Make Parents Mad. Not to mention it’s a bad thing for the poor puppy (or kitten or hamster).

      1. Liane*

        YES! to Very Bad Idea & Yes to over the limit. Our local shelter charges $90 for a dog adoption. (We got lucky and they were waiving the fee the weekend we got our beloved Bear–but still spent almost that much on basic supplies.)

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I can see someone having a litter of pups and being all “lol this is easier than finding homes the proper way!”

    2. kittymommy*

      That is horrible. It’s not a great idea to give animals as gifts anyway, but at work? For a Secret Santa?? No, no, no.
      (TBH, though, if someone gave me a kitten I’d freak out and keep her!).

      1. Anonny*

        Lets face it, animals need equipment. So even if you got someone who was willing to take in a puppy, they’d still not have any food or dishes or toys or beds or training pads.

  5. EPLawyer*

    Oh yes, the let’s contribute to a gift for the boss from our paychecks. Because …. why? The one from the bonuses is especially egregious. Here’s something from the boss– now give it back.

    But the real winner of all time is the ski trip for the boss’s family. They don’t even work there. But let’s take something from the actual worker’s hard labor (I’m exaggerating) to give them a nice vacation.

    1. irene adler*

      Just have to wonder how these activities get started.
      Was it a ploy by one manager to gain the boss’s favor?

  6. Valegro*

    I left a job at a small company where the office bully (who had been there for decades) would force us all to chip in towards a gift for the boss. We were all paid pretty poorly and I didn’t think we needed to give the owner of the business (making six figures) a gift from his employees making less than the local gas station paid for skilled work. Unfortunately he would have sulked and made our lives miserable if we didn’t do it.

        1. SignalLost*

          My mother was a nurse and when she retired, one woman gave her signature gift of a metal bedpan (it looks like an actual toilet seat on a relatively shallow basin; I think it’s all one piece, and it’s both vintage and spendy) filled with the plant called Hens And Chicks. My mother still has it, 15 years later, and the plant is taking over part of the deck fencing, which she wanted. I’m not certain a plastic bedpan fits in the same category, but it can be done!

          1. Anonny*

            I guess that like, it’s cute if it’s vintage. If it’s a waxed cardboard or plastic one then it’s just weird.

          2. Daisy Avalin*

            My dad has two toilets in his front garden, with plants in one. The other is a miniature pond, to encourage insects.

            His joke about them is: He can’t afford bronze lions, so instead he’s got two porcelain sit-ons!!

  7. Utoh!*

    Yeah, we have a Yankee Swap every year and it’s a mixed bag. One year a (very highly paid) male coworker brought in an (ugly) wall hanging that his mother made. I got it, and he must have seen my face because he swapped with me for the item he got (can’t remember what it was). I could see if we were giving home-made gifts to each other, but we weren’t, the gifts were to be $20! I am always really thoughtful about the gift I give. I love seeing people fight over it! This year it’s a bottle of nice red wine to go along with the wine pairing chocolate, and a few scratch offs. I actually donated the gift I got last year, a ratchet set…seriously?! I work with too many men!

    1. BadWolf*

      And these examples are why gifting to somewhat strangers is always a peril!

      I love crafty things – I might have liked the wall hanging. Red wine gives me a migraine. I would totally take a ratchet set.

      1. SignalLost*

        I’m allergic to chocolate and a recovering alcoholic. I’m also crafty and would love a ratchet set. :)

        1. Utoh!*

          The good thing is that hopefully someone who really wants it will pick it after it’s been opened instead of selecting an unopened gift. That’s why I like the Yankee Swap better than a Kris Kringle where you have to purchase something for the person you picked which can be difficult unless you know them well. I like to switch things up a bit, but I always include scratch offs regardless.

      1. DCGirl*

        I also left all my branded stuff (mug, water bottle, etc.) in a drawer… I’m sure they thought I was being churlish, but I was so ready to be out of there.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I used my old companies branded shirts as rags. I laughed as I did it…they made a show out of how kind they were to “gift” us branded t-shirts. They told a guy who took an extra one out of the giant box for his wife that he’d have to pay for it…only one each or they’d charge above cost pricing.

          So I used mine to pick up turds my cat kicked out of the box.

      1. DCGirl*

        If there’s been enough thumbtacks to spell out something, I just might have left a message. Nine thumbtacks doesn’t get you very far.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m amused that you remembered the colors. I assume because you looked at them every day thinking “these cheapskate jerkbags…”

  8. Oops*

    Um, one of the small (one a day, leading up to the holiday party/”big” gift at the end of the week) gifts I got for my Secret Santee is a package of thumbtacks. I’m gonna go hide in the corner now.

    (They are cool wooden ended thumbtacks that I think she will like. But I had to laugh when I saw that.)

    1. Treecat*

      But presumably you also aren’t the boss doling these out as signs of your Christmas generosity! For a white elephant exchange among coworkers, honestly nice thumbtacks sound like a fine gift.

      1. SignalLost*

        I would love nice thumbtacks! But I am also the person who has a highly decorated office and displays the most thumbtacks. (Over a box worth, I’m a graphic designer.)

    2. Works in IT*

      Since I currently need what feels like a million metal thumbtacks for my next crafty project, I would be overjoyed to get thumbtacks that I could loan to my parents in exchange for the ones I need.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I love office supplies. I have had ladybug thumbtacks and ones with hooks to hang a paper from if necessary.

      So if it’s thoughtful and meant to be a small trinket over the course of days, you’re a-ok!

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I’m waiting for someone to buy me the unicorn tape dispenser I’ve been coveting for years now…

    4. The New Wanderer*

      In college, a friend repaired his car’s drooping ceiling fabric with a lot of shiny metal thumbtacks. It ended up being a really cool look. There are always uses! (If you’re given lots of thumbtacks, not just 9 castoffs)

    5. Oops*

      I really do think this person will like them. It was just funny to see that specific item called out. I think I will have to make those tomorrow’s gift, in case she also reads AAM.

  9. It's mce*

    Did someone write in saying he/she got a sex toy as a Secret Santa gift? I remember vaguely about this.

    1. Amber Rose*

      That one’s popped up a few times from different sources in open threads too, which just goes to show how many people have poor workplace judgement.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I was at one office gift exchange where a woman was given a particularly suggestive Star Wars knockoff lightsaber , along with suggestive comments. The rest of us — male and female alike–were horrified.

  10. anon today and tomorrow*

    The bed pan story reminds me of when I was 12 and my girl scout troop did a Yankee Swap. Everyone bought candy or gift cards to popular stores, but the richest girl in the troop (she lived in a very nice gated neighborhood) gave a toothbrush and toothpaste as her gift. I ended up getting that gift because I went last and everyone laughed because no one wants the “joke gift’. I remember bursting into tears afterwards because I felt horrified and embarrassed.

    All these years later and I refuse to participate in Yankee Swaps because there’s always that one person who gives a joke gift in poor taste and ruins it for someone else. And in my experience, it’s always someone who can afford to spend $10 or $20 on a decent box of chocolates or a gift card.

    1. Yorick*

      At some high school xmas party we did a swap kind of gift thing. I don’t remember if they were meant to be gag gifts, but I remember that some were. I got dentures. I was actually thrilled, but then the giver told me I had to give them back because it was just a joke and they were from her mom’s dentistry practice. That was lame.

    2. MRK*

      Did a secret Santa with my Girl Scout troop one year and I got an American Flag puzzle, still in plastic drugstore bag. It was SUCH a let down to 12 year old me. Even then I could understand budgets or not having much money, but it was so clearly an “I don’t care” choice (And to this day I cant figure out who thought a 12 year old girl would want an American flag puzzle instead of literally anything else)

      1. anon today and tomorrow*

        I think Yankee Swaps/Secret Santas are worse for kids because they take gag gifts or thoughtless gifts much worse than adults. You’re all excited to open a present, and then get something awful, and have to be polite about it in front of everyone who is watching you.

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          I always think they sound like fun but the only time I’ve ever participated in one was in elementary school. I was very excited to pick just the right gift and to see what I’d get. Well, the teacher didn’t bother to make sure that everyone who put something in got something out, and I got nothing at all. So petty but it was a big blow to me, especially as I think I was the only one with no gift.

    3. Antilles*

      Part of the problem is that “Yankee Swap” and “White Elephant” don’t have a clear meaning – some people use the terms to mean simply that you just pick gifts, but others use the term to also imply “and it’s all in fun, so gag gifts are fine”. Which would be fine, but people usually don’t clarify anything beyond the dollar limit. So you often get a mix of both real gifts and gag gifts, and someone ends up unhappy.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I have a happy Yankee Swap story — about the ugly unwanted gift. The girl scout leaders got together for our own Christmas celebration (we were a tight bunch, two of them crashed my wedding last June even though I had moved almost 20 years ago from the area where we were leaders). We were doing the gift exchange after a couple of drinks. There was a set of ceramic owls. Pretty ugly primitive things. I LOVE owls and collect them. Everyone who got them was trading them as quick as possible. Fortunately I was pretty far down the line. I opened whatever I got, don’t even remember. And promptly grabbed the owls from whoever had been stuck with them last. I had the biggest smile on my face and just cradled them to my chest. No one tried to take them. I still have the owls.

      2. anon today and tomorrow*

        In the case of my childhood example, the rules were explained well beforehand and I still remember being told very clearly not to pick gag gifts because it wasn’t in the spirit of girl scouts.

    4. Liane*

      “there’s always that one person who gives a joke gift in poor taste and ruins it for someone else.”
      Only ONCE, whether social or workplace, have I seen a gag gift work out in these. I was working for a medical transcription service and there was a holiday party for the handful of us that worked in-house with one of the steal-a-present gift exchanges. One of the gifts was a new toilet plunger nicely wrapped like a wine bottle, in an exchange that specified “No Gag Gifts.” It was only funny because it ended up with the person who brought it, one of the highest-ranking execs.

      He had intended it to be an extra gift (secretly putting a second, nice gift in as well), so that the person who got stuck with it, would still get something nice. In spite of Exec’s planning, it almost still went sour. Somebody–I don’t know who, how, or why–ended up playing without bringing a gift, so instead of 1 more gift than there were participants, they were equal. If Exec hadn’t gotten stuck with his own, someone would have been very disappointed, instead of everyone, including Exec, having a good laugh.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Argh. The person who plays even though they didn’t bring anything. That is how our swap at bowling was ruined after decades of it going off without any issues. Then a few someones played and didn’t bring a gift. So people were rightfully upset when they finally got their strike and could choose a gift. Only ha ha ha nope.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      As a kid. In CHURCH YOUTH GROUP! underline and bolded for dramatic effect. I was given dog treats by a fellow young teenager at the time.

      It was that moment I swore off Christmas and my heart shrunk to the size of the Grinch’s.

      I didn’t recover until two decades later.

      1. MatKnifeNinja*

        My sister got flea shampoo and dog biscuits at her 5th grade catechism holiday party.

        And some adult went along with it, and professionally wrapped the gift.

    6. sunshyne84*

      Same. I’ve never seen anyone give joke gifts, but I repeatedly would get the last minute let me find something around the house I don’t want gift. Like I’m sure your grandma spent a lot of time beading that necklace together, but no thanks.

  11. Amber Rose*

    I’ve never participated in a work gift exchange, thankfully nowhere I’ve worked has ever wanted to have one. Nothing I’ve ever read on AAM has convinced me that I want to try it.

  12. Treecat*

    Honestly the best holiday or end of year gifts to employees is money. My husband works for a huge international company and we boggle at the amount of stupid, useless branded tchotchkeys they give out as “perks.” Take the money you spend producing that junk and just give your employees cash, good lord.

    1. AliceB*

      I worked for a non-profit where the ED would giver everyone branded merchandise for Christmas. One year was a light blue, flannel-lined denim jacket with the agency’s logo embroidered on the back. My mind boggled – they must have actually cost quite a bit of money because they were pretty high-quality. All I could think was how much that cash would have been appreciated instead.

      1. Put the company logo on it*

        Current Job also does company logoed items every year. However, they are generally useful and in good taste. I wonder when they will run out of ideas for the type of logoed item.

    2. Kyrielle*

      One year at a previous job, we got branded pens.

      Branded anniversary year pens.

      For the year just wrapping up.

      …yep. They totally dumped their leftover and soon-to-be-dated marketing swag on us.

      The one I got didn’t write.

      I’ve had better holiday gifts, but I’ve had worse too: I got a good laugh and a story out of it anyway.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        It’s amazing how often branded pens don’t write!
        I recently came across one that was so comfortable, smooth and high-quality I told the receptionist “I’m stealing this!”
        That’s rare.

  13. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

    My company does a Yankee Swap for our Christmas-In-July party (usually held in August each year). We have the usual rules on being able to choose or steal, and a limited number of times you can steal a gift. The twist is that all the gifts are bought and paid for by the company. This means that everything is about the same value ($5-$10, I think), everything is office appropriate (candy, reusable drinking glasses, calendars, inexpensive toys), and nobody has to go out of their way to buy something in the hopes that a random coworker will like it.

    Each employee also gets a holiday gift, purchased by the company. To ensure everyone likes their gift, we are given a price limit (including tax and shipping where applicable) and get to pick our own gift.

    The down side to both is we can’t get gift cards, by corporate policy. (Apparently there were shenanigans at other locations, so now corporate won’t allow anyone to expense gift cards, no exceptions.)

    1. OhNo*

      That sounds like the one way I would actually enjoy a gift swap kind of event! Now that I think about it, I’m kind of amazed that I haven’t heard of it before; it seems like such a good (and cheap) way for the company to give gifts to employees.

  14. many bells down*

    Mr. Bells works for a game company so we often get game consoles as holiday gifts. They will literally order a pallet of 300+ consoles for everyone in the company. Which is cool, but also a lot of people already own the console they get (because, gamers) and would rather have had the cash. I don’t know if they get a bulk discount on them but still, we’re talking $300-400 consoles at retail.

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        Presumably they can, and more easily than trying to sell some gold-plated company paperweight, but then you’re essentially giving someone a gift of $300 *if* they jump through a bunch of annoying hoops.

    1. Autumnheart*

      Donate ’em to Toys for Tots! You’d make some kid’s whole LIFE finding that under the tree.

  15. Lady Kelvin*

    It is complications like these that makes me glad to be a state employee in a federal office building because the rules for gift giving from both sides are essentially the same. Don’t. Legally neither of us are allowed to give gifts so I don’t have to every worry about it. I will likely make cookies and leave them in the pantry for everyone to enjoy, but I do that about every 2 months anyways so its definitely not necessarily holiday related. I just wish we weren’t having a Christmas party, but rather a holiday party. I happen to live in a state where a lot of people are Christian, but it still feels gross to have a federal office celebrating Christmas so blatantly (its sponsored/planned by the Employee’s association, and completely voluntary to go, but still, feels not great).

    1. sunshyne84*

      Haha I met our mayor recently and he was complaining about lack of lights in the office and I told him how we have a door decorating competition. I assume they don’t exchange gifts either, but they do have a whole Light the Tree Ceremony every year. *shrugs* lol

  16. Tess McGill*

    Years ago (25+) I worked at large-law-firm. First Christmas every employee received Omaha Steaks and lobster tails delivered in dry ice to our home address. I’m allergic to shell fish and had no clue how to cook the steaks (I was very young), so I gave everything to my Dad, which he loved. Second year, every employee got a cheap, knock-off Walkman. By the end of the day, many of them could be found in the trash. Best gifts ever (before I just wanted cash) were personal gifts from bosses that included a Coach purse and a beautiful piece of pottery (still have both). I’ve received earrings many times (I don’t have pierced ears). Now working at smaller-law-firm we get VISA gift cards and giant candles (which I give away).

    1. FredK*

      FWIW, if you get pierced earrings that you like and have a few bucks to spare, you can buy converters to turn them into clip-ons. At least in my area, most craft stores have ’em.

  17. Purple Wine Mouth*

    When I was in college, I worked at a local coffee shop for several years. Each year, the bosses would give all of us $50 gift cards…to the coffee shop. While I didn’t mind too much because I was a poor college student, could barely cook (still can’t) and used it for meals, my bosses were essentially just paying themselves. When I showed my dad my bonus, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him laugh so hard.

    1. kittymommy*

      This reminds me of a story someone told me once. I go out to eat a lot and regularly to certain restaurants (enough that we have the same bartenders almost every time). One of the bartenders was telling my friend and I about another regular who got her a Christmas gift one year. She said she was really touched by it…until she opened it up and found a gift card to her restaurant. She thinks it was the free gift card with a purchase of $100 in cards.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      They weren’t even paying themselves. They certainly didn’t pay out the face value to the company. Didn’t you get a shift drink anyways? My goodness, any decent shop owner would never act like free food or drink is a bonus

      1. Purple Wine Mouth*

        Eh, they were sketchy about shift drinks. I mean, we made them anyway, but there were limits to what we technically could have – basically just drip coffee or iced tea, and we could only have a specialty drink if it was someone’s wrong order. I have so many bones to pick with that place lol, I worked there for 3 years and only got a 25 cent raise about a month before I graduated college and moved away. But yeah, they certainly had a warped sense of appreciation for their staff.

  18. Ann O'Nemity*

    My company gives “End of Year” gifts in the form of $50 gift cards, which were actually earned through corporate credit card points. They always get a big selection and let employees pick which one they want. All the leftovers are distributed throughout the following year for employee engagement, appreciation, anniversaries, etc. Compared to the other holiday gifting practices, I actually think this works pretty well!

  19. Chocolate Teapot*

    I got an email today saying the Powers that Be, will be giving us all gift vouchers as a Christmas thank you present. The only problem is that the vouchers can only be used in a limited number of shops, so I usually end up putting it towards my year-end grocery shopping.

    I have only ever done Secret Santa gift exchanges, but for several years in a row, I received a giant kilo box of Lindt chocolates. I seem to recall another recipient got a naff ceramic elf ornament covered in glitter.

  20. Anon for this*

    I just participated in a White elephant exchange with a group I volunteer with (think outdoor recreation-based volunteering). There was a $5 or $10 price limit, but the point of “White Elephants” is that you choose something that’s living around your house to wrap up. Stealing was encouraged.

    A couple of kids got weird things (but in each case, an adult with something cool offered to trade with them), and there was a bit of “one person’s junk is another person’s treasure” going on — I got a box with a hat, sunglasses, decent corded earbuds (which work with my phone), and a kid’s dvd, most of which is stuff I can use. Lots of us have access to swag from various events, so it was fun for people with, say, unused event T-shirts and hats, or random little bits of technology, to get to pass them on. Sometimes to people who were excited to get them!

    1. Hlyssande*

      You have a very different definition of white elephant than I do, and I think that underlines the point that the rules and expectations have to be spelled out very clearly at the beginning.

  21. WellRed*

    We are doing a Yankee swap this year for the first time ever. We’ll see how it goes. I am cheerfully participating, though inwardly, I think it’s a waste of $.

  22. Used Lip Gloss*

    My previous employer always did a Secret Santa, where anyone who wanted to participate would be matched up and give their person one small gift a day leading up to our final reveal party at the end of the week. At the final reveal party, you would meet your Santa and they would give you your final gift (the budget for the entire week was like $20-$25.) One year, I didn’t get anything for a couple of days and was a little bummed… and then I found a lip gloss in my mail slot. A used lip gloss. With dog hair stuck to it. That was the only small gift I got. I did get a nice gift card (for slightly more than it was supposed to be, probably to make up for the lack of earlier gifts) at the final reveal party, where my Santa didn’t even mention the lip gloss– and neither did I…

  23. Emma*

    In my first year of full time work post-university, as a young woman in her early 20’s in a work environment with mostly women at the junior level and mostly men at the senior level, I received chocolate body paint in the workplace Secret Santa. No one owned up to it and my co-workers (both male and female) laughed it off. It could have been a misguided joke, I suppose, but I still feel creeped out years later.

    1. Jean (just Jean)*

      Yuck to the max. Clearly everyone had been brainwashed into accepting a sexist worldview: men in charge, women follow order; men leer and women laugh it off. Many sympathies to your younger self.

      If it would help any, my inner demon proposes a retrospective fantasy involving time travel and culinary hostility: imagine using the body paint to make brownies for the office further. Or imagine enhancing the ingredients further, a la the chocolate pie Minny serves to her former boss in the movie “The Help.” But mostly l’m sorry you had that experience. It’s hard to learn that other people aren’t always kind. It’s even harder when you have not yet learned that their unkindness says more about them than you.

  24. Salyan*

    Is there a chance the lip gloss was someone else’s idea of a joke, and didn’t come from the Secret Santa at all?

    1. Used Lip Gloss*

      Guessing you meant to post this under mine. I don’t think it was a joke. If that was the case, I think I would’ve gotten some other gifts throughout the week from my actual Secret Santa. Based on who it ended up being, I honestly think she just forgot and grabbed something from her makeup bag. (Which doesn’t answer the questions of why her lip gloss was covered in dog hair, or why she thought that would make a good gift…)

  25. Lucille2*

    I miss the Thanksgiving turkey my spouse’s old job gave us every year. Of course, it was given in time to thaw and prepare for Thanksgiving dinner, and employees could opt to donate it to a local food bank if they had no need for it. Giving a 20 lb frozen turkey the DAY BEFORE? Careless or very poor planning. What a waste.

  26. TiffIf*

    My department has a Secret Santa gift exchange each year that is 1) limited to $10 and 2) completely voluntary. We do fill out a short (3 question) form saying when we’ll be leaving the office, what we like (usually candy or treats/soda of some sort) and what not to give us (like, allergic to nuts). And then we do a random drawing for names. It has been low key, fun and nothing terrible has happened since I have been participating. I don’t really know the guy whose name I pulled but he put down that he likes Twix and Mountain Dew so that’s what he’s getting.

  27. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    I’m fascinated by the baggie of 9 thumbtacks. Like, regular plastic thumbtacks (pushpins)? Do you think he got them from the office supplies? Did he give out company office supplies as a holiday gift?? Hard to imagine the inner brain workings of someone who believes that 9 thumbtacks are better than no gift at all.

  28. Super Anon*

    One year the boss gave us all fart machines. Fart machines.
    I said, ‘at least it comes with a 9 volt battery. I can use that in my smoke detector.’

  29. katiescarlett*

    In junior high, my youth group at church had a Christmas party once, where we were supposed to bring gag gifts $10 or under. I don’t remember what I took, but I received 600 unrolled pennies. I rolled them and had the bank exchange them for ones. The parents hosting the party at their home, however, put horse poop in a shoe box and wrapped that up. One of the other teens received that box for their gift.

    1. Bilateralrope*

      Sounds like they are just asking for the gift to be “accidently” tipped out in their kitchen.

  30. Bilateralrope*

    Last year, my work gave me a gift card for the supermarket nearest where I lived. Which made it the most thoughtful gift card I’ve ever received.

    This year, the client I’m working for gave everyone from my employer working on their site a bottle of wine. Which is odd because we think everyone working for the client is muslim (they are all from an islamic country), which means they are forbidden from drinking alcohol.

  31. SweetFA*

    Last year I had been in my new job for a few weeks when secret santa came around. I had NO MONEY & they increased the limit from £5 to £10 giving us only 1 day to find a gift (which was really 1 evening since we were at work). I went home got the gift I was given for leaving my previous job which had been obviously opened but not really used & put them in a gift bag. The person who received the gift was not impressed but I would later discover she was the office bitch so I have absolutely zero regrets.

  32. Groovy Chick*

    We had our Yankee gift exchange at work today. The best gift was a Squatty Potty. It came with one of those paper crowns from Burger King. You know, so you can wear a crown while on your new throne. :)

    And making this story even better – the poor guy who opened it was lucky enough to have it stolen from him. I overheard the gal who eventually stole it googling for Squatty Potty, because she didn’t know what it was, and she said it was worth $60. (I am not sure that’s true? I googled it right now and saw it for $25.) I guess she’s planning to resell it?

  33. Florence*

    My boss gave me a three-tiered box of candied almonds. Once he placed it on my desk, he proceeded to open it and eat the almonds right in front of me.

  34. Rhiannon*

    There’s something about being a workplace compelling its employees to spend their own money that just leaves me feeling a little cold.

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