‘Tis the season for holiday parties, gift exchanges, and decorating the office. With the increasing expense of quality gifts, many offices and families are choosing to use games such as a white elephant or secret Santa exchange to reduce the pressure for everyone to buy each other a gift, which for a large office or family could end up costing each person hundreds of dollars. Instead, these exchanges require one person to bring or give one gift, and in return receive one gift of equal value. A white elephant exchange is different than a Secret Santa exchange. In a white elephant exchange, participants each bring a wrapped mystery gift and then choose a number, which determines the order by which gifts are opened. Once an order has been established, each person takes his or her turn choosing a gift. The first person then picks a gift and opens it. Then, other participants choose to either unwrap a new gift or to “steal” a previously unwrapped gift. If a gift is “stolen,” the person who had their gift taken from them gets to unwrap any unopened gift. At the end, the first person can choose to keep their “gift” or choose from all others opened.

Secret Santa, however, is very different. Each person is assigned another person in the group to whom to anonymously give a gift. The difficulty with this exchange is that someone has to organize the assignment of each Secret Santa, and then keep a list in the event someone fails to receive their gift. Usually a person who is not participating in the group organizes the exchange to keep the anonymity of those giving and receiving. This year, we decided at LockerGnome to hold our own secret Santa exchange, even though our office is primarily virtual. When I struggled to find a way to both assign other LockerGnome writers their Secret Santa and also participate myself, I figured that, among the dozens of apps and services I am pitched daily, that there had to be a Web 2.0 solution for a secret Santa exchange.

And, of course, there is. Elfster.com, which is also now available as a mobile app, is a service that allows users to organize a secret Santa exchange by inviting users by email address or by connecting via Facebook. An organizer of an exchange invites other participants, who can then RSVP to officially register as a secret Santa for that exchange, and then create universal wishlists, a secret Q&A, receive personalized gift recommendations, and participate in group discussions. Every user can organize and participate in multiple gift exchanges, which is ideal for people who belong to multiple organizations. Elfster facilitates the “draw” of names, so even as an organizer of a secret Santa exchange you can play without knowing who your secret Santa is — though the option to see a complete list of secret Santas and giftees is available in the event that someone decides to become a Scrooge, instead.

Organizing a Secret Santa? Elfster is an App for That

Elfster was developed in 2003, but this year has unveiled both Facebook integration and apps for smart phones, which makes creating and participating in Secret Santa exchanges easier than ever. The mobile apps feature the ability to add items to a wish list by taking a photo with the smart phone camera, and use the app to retrieve a mailing address for shipping a gift while at the post office.

“Being able to access Elfster fast, whether it’s via our Facebook app or on a smart phone, gives our users the ability to use Elfster when it’s convenient for them, not just when they’re sitting at a computer,” said Peter Imburg, CEO at Elfster. “Whether you’re shopping for a secret Santa exchange or just buying for that person in your life who you never know what to get for, these new options make gift giving a breeze.”

Elfster really does make gift giving a breeze. Creating our LockerGnome secret Santa exchange was simple, and unlike many other services I try and test, this was actually not only enjoyable, but useful. The UI slightly resembles Facebook, which makes it intuitive to use for almost anyone. However, the functions and features are fine-tuned for the specific needs of Secret Santas everywhere. Critical information, such as your mailing address, is an inherent part of your profile. Other key features include a Q & A that allows your secret Santa to anonymously ask you information to help find the right gift for you, as well as a universal wishlist that your secret Santa can also use to help find the right gift. This wishlist is perhaps the best feature though, as it makes sure you get what you actually want. LockerGnome writer Ron Schenone was most impressed by this feature when we set up our secret Santa exchange for Lockergnome:

I think the service worked great and it was very easy to use. I enjoyed that a wishlist was provided, which was very helpful. I would rather send someone something that they want or need, instead of hoping they will like the gift.

As the organizer of our secret Santa for the year, I found that setting up an exchange on Elfster is actually really easy. Although I explained details via email, organizers of secret Santa can use Elfster to set a spending limit and include instructions so everyone is sure to know the rules from the beginning. It’s also really fun to use — not only did I find myself digging through years of old photos for a holiday-themed profile picture, I became slightly addicted to finding new and interesting additions for my wishlist, as well as commenting on other wishlists. I usually don’t agree wholeheartedly with marketing and promotional material, but Elfster describes itself almost perfectly as “One Part Wishing + One Part Shopping + One Part Social Networking + One Part Gaming = Tons of Fun.”

Elfster is a free service and can be found on Elfster.com, via Facebook, or as an app on your Android or iPhone device. If you are organizing or participating in a secret Santa exchange this holiday season, will you be using a service like Elfster? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.