The secrets of an elusive santa

At some point late last year I decided thefamilywishlist.com should have a secret Santa tool. As useful a feature as it may be, I couldn’t decide on the details of integration. And as most of you know without a clear idea for a solution or interface, it’s easier to just put a feature off. There are just so many potential complications.

So put it off is what I did. However, I confidently marked Friday November 27, 2010 off on my calendar as the day that I would implement the secret Santa tool. And as unexpected as expected, that day eventually came.

I’m only partially joking. I did in fact mark November 27 for secret santa development, but did so on November 25. Less impressive, true, but — well, just less impressive all around.

I ended up adding it as a tool that can be used by registered and anonymous guests. As such, when logged in it appears under the tools menu. When not logged in, it appears as the item furthest right in the main menu.

You don’t have to be a family wishlist user to take advantage of the secret Santa tool, but it’s neater if you are. The participants you add don’t have to be registered users either, but it’s neater if they are.

Using the secret Santa tool

A secret Santa event is made up of some descriptive data, and a list of participants.

Event details

Title — The events title should be pretty self-explanatory. It lets your participants know which secret Santa the email they receive refers to. This should be especially useful if you are a participant in more than one, and if there is some participant overlap.
The initial event title is generated as “[current year] Secret Santa of [some word]“, but feel free to set the title to anything relevant to your event.

Name — The name field lets your participants know who set up the event. Useful if they need to contact you for any additional information, and in hope that when recognizing your name they won’t immediately discard the e-mail as spam.
If you’re logged in, the name field will not appear – the tool will use your name automatically.

Description — Provides a bit of space for any additional information you might like to convey (rules, gift-exchange location and time, or anything else you can think of).


There are two ways to add participants to your event. The easiest is if you’re logged in. Simply click on the users in the list of your friends to the left.
Additionally, You can enter e-mail addresses into the add field, and click the add » button. If the email address is already associated with a user of the system, their name will be displayed. If not, it will show their e-mail address.
If you make a mistake, click [oops] next to a participant to remove.

If you’re not logged in, don’t forget to add yourself!

Once you’ve set up your event, click the Done! (send the emails!) button. Participants will be randomly paired, and e-mails to each queued for sending.

Don’t be alarmed if they don’t receive the emails immediately. I’ve implemented a queuing system do distribute the actual mailing.
As long as the system is not in heavy use, e-mails should be sent within ten minutes. After that, you will still have to wait for them to make their way across the internet (or tangled mess, as we call it in the business).
Seriously though, I’ve called it that maybe once before.

The Result

Each participant is sent an e-mail which lets them know who they’re to purchase a gift for.

This should be especially useful for secret Santa events involving physically distant participants, who may otherwise need to be drawn for by another participant.


If you need ideas for a gift, an obvious place to look is the wishlist of the participant you’ve been assigned. If they’re not a registered user, you can add them as a friend and they’ll be invited. Beware, though, the invitation e-mail will reveal who they were invited by, which can spoil the surprise of a secret Santa. At that point, you may as well just call it Santa.

An obvious solution is to add all participants as friends before creating the event. This way, they will all receive invitations from you (the organizer) and what’s more, it will be easier for you to add them to the event.
An alternate (if less elegant) solution is to manually request that a friend invite them.

If you’ve gotten this far I expect you’re a little alarmed but not at all disgusted that I could write so many words on such a simple subject, and that I would choose to do so.
But why not put that wonder aside, and head over to the family wishlist to try out its entirely new secret santa tool?



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