Origin of the phrase
Secret Santa is a phrase that combines the Latin word ‘secretus’ meaning ‘withdrawn, concealed’ and the shortened form of ‘Santa Claus’, which comes from the Middle Dutch figure of ‘Sinter Niklaas’ or ‘Saint Nicholas’, who was a real-life Christian bishop from Asia Minor and became a patron saint of children.
The phrase Secret Santa refers to the Western Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts among members of a group or family. During this ritual, participants are randomly assigned another person for whom they must buy a gift. Gift givers remain anonymous and recipients typically don’t know who has given them their present.
Though the idea of a Secret Santa gift exchange has gained popularity in recent years, the practice of anonymous gift-giving actually dates back centuries to a Scandinavian tradition known as ‘Julklapp’. In Scandinavian, the word ‘Jul’ means ‘Christmas’ and ‘klapp’ means ‘to knock’. According to custom, people knock loudly on a door, open it and quickly leave a gift without being seen. Instead of a card, the person leaving the gift writes a short, funny message and guests at a gathering must then try to guess the recipient for each gift, usually to everyone’s great amusement.
Today, Secret Santa is practiced in many countries all over the world, and there are several variations of the original anonymous gift-giving tradition.
The ‘white elephant’ or ‘stealing Secret Santa’ custom says that everyone in the group must bring a generic gift that could be suitable for any recipient. Gifts are wrapped to hide what’s inside and placed together in a common area. Players are then typically given a number and proceed in order, choosing to take a new gift or steal a previously opened gift from someone else.
In the guessing version of Secret Santa, each participant is given a letter from their assigned recipient containing hints about what kind of gift the receiver hopes to get. Players must then try to guess who gave them their gift.
Secret Santa parties are even becoming popular online, with many apps and websites now available to help groups, families, businesses and other communities set up anonymous gift exchanges.
1. the tradition of randomly choosing a member from a group, for example at a work place, and buying a small gift for them which they receive without knowing who bought it for them
View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.