Since I've been an adult for awhile now, I have been to a fair number of dirty santa and white elephant gift exchanges over the years. I have walked away with gifts that I loved, gifts for the GoodWill pile and once, with the very gift that I had brought to the party. But, it seems that mystery gift exchanges are loved by all around the world so I am going to type the 'rules' for 2 different ways of playing the game--and maybe add a few tips so that you do not end up with a box rusty car parts sitting in your front seat as you drive home and wonder what went wrong.
First of all, if you are going to host a party that includes a gift exchange, I suggest that you make the gift guidelines specific. How about a themed gift-- Every brings: a Christmas ornament, candle, booze, candy, food--whatever floats your boat. Or a dollar amount-- & specify that it should be something new i.e. purchased recently and un-used (because apparently some out there feel they can put a dollar amount on the dusty crap in their garage) If you would prefer people bring their random, found-object-turned-Christmas-present-haha-funny-funny-gift, say it in the invitation so that someone who brought a nice bottle of something doesn't leave with the aforementioned box of rusty car parts. Bring a gift you'd be happy to win--even if it is a gag gift. And IF you are one of those people that bring a box of junk from the attic or a melted candy bar in a diaper, I would like to let you in on a secret. It isn't funny. The best gifts are the ones that people want to steal! Now, off the soapbox and onto the different rules for gift exchanges.
Ed and I participated in a gift exchange at an international Christmas party at a church here. The gift swap was not going to be a long, drawn out affair (as they can be if there are over 15 people) but short and sweet at the end of the party. The pianist started to play "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and we all sang and mingled. While mingling, we were swapping wrapped presents as we passed by one another. When the piano music stopped (after about 6 rounds of WWYAMC), whatever gift you had in your hands was now yours. I opened my gift to find a box of crackers and Ed gave his to a little boy who had so wanted to win something during a different game earlier in the evening but never did. It was sweet & I was happy to have something that I could actually use!
The second gift exchange was one that our Danish friends taught us last night. We were told to bring 3 wrapped presents between the 2 of us--and I was later told that usually, it is 2 per person. Each gift was only $4-6. It is best to play this sitting at a table because rolling a dice is involved. The first part of the game is the 'handing out' of the gifts. All gifts rest in the middle of the table. A dice is passed around and if you roll a 6, you either pick a gift or steal a gift from someone else. Rather than opening the gift when you get it, all gifts remain wrapped! After all the gifts are sitting in front of someone, part 2 begins. (just to be clear, if you did not roll a 6 during the first part of the game, you will have zero presents in front of you while someone else may have 4-5) One person, the time keeper, will set an alarm for an undisclosed amount of time. It can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as...well, I guess that is for the time keeper to decide :) After the timer is started, the dice is again passed around the circle. For each 6 you roll, you may steal a gift. You don't want to lazily be rolling and passing the dice because you have no idea when the timer may go off. So, once the time ends, what you have in front of you is what you won. I suppose if you hosted a party and played this version, you could have a consolation prize for someone who managed not to win even one gift.
My last alternative is an adjustment to the traditional American way of doing the gift exchange game. It is one that relies on ones skill rather than just dumb luck. Instead of drawing numbers to see who will have the coveted last number, why not have a competition of real 'skill'--like musical chairs. When you fail to find a seat, you unwrap or steal a gift. The winner of musical chairs will either steal the gift of their choosing or open the final, unopened gift. And no, the first person out does not get to be the last person to steal a gift :)