My family held a Yankee swap last week.
If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, well…lucky you.
A Yankee swap is different than a Secret Santa. With a Secret Santa, the gift giver knows who the gift is for, but the gift getter doesn’t know who it’s from. A Yankee swap is much more characteristically American, because nobody knows anything.
In a Yankee swap, a bunch of people gather together, each person bearing a wrapped gift. One by one, the presents are opened and moved among the participants according to an array of strict rules which ensure that at least one person will end up angry with at least one other person.
The word “Yankee,” of course, when applied to almost anything by anybody, has a derogatory connotation, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. Folks in the American south, for instance, still harbor a deep resentment for anything “Yankee,” while the English use the term as one might refer to a rich relative who you really don’t like (because of some perceived offense years ago) but hope will remember you in their will.
Then there are the New York Yankees, universally hated by anyone who roots for another baseball team, as documented in the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” in which the Washington Senators, by way of a Faustian deal with the devil, manage to beat the Yankees, but then have to pay by moving to Minneapolis.
Other phrases using the word include “Yankee bean soup,” a disgusting blend of ham hocks, beans and molasses; “Yankee Doodle,” a song originally sung by the British mocking American soldiers who had no idea what macaroni was and almost caused 20th Century American children to eat Kraft Feathers & Cheese; and Yankee Candle Company, the store responsible for stinking up malls throughout the country with cloying flowery scents.
In short, it’s likely that the term “Yankee Swap,” was not meant to be complimentary. One origin story has it that the name is derived from the Civil War, when the Yankees and the Confederates would swap prisoners and make humorous, overly-dramatic displays to the delight of all the soldiers. “Oh, no, don’t take him,” one soldier might say, “I love the way
he hobbles around on one leg!” “I know he’s your brother,” another might announce, “but if you steal him, I’ll steal him right back.”
And so a wonderful tradition was born. These days, Yankee swaps have become a convenient way to anonymously re-gift items that have been sitting in your closet for years.
My wife Barbara was introduced to Yankee swapping at the holiday parties held by her former real estate agency. As with any large gathering of real estate agents, these parties were excruciating for the spouses of said agents, since the topics of conversation tended to revolve around who had assigned ridiculous asking prices to which properties just so they could get the listings. The spouses looked forward to the Yankee swap portion of the evening because it meant that, for a few merciful minutes, the word “colonial” was not likely to be uttered.
I never understood why Barbara enjoyed the swaps; she was really bad at them. She lacked the killer instinct necessary to risk offending someone by stealing their gift, and so we always ended up with an ugly picture frame or a bad bottle of wine. I’ve continually berated Barb’s swapping skills over the years.
Anyway, if you’d like to hold your own Yankee swap, just be sure to follow a few simple rules to prevent it from becoming total anarchy:
- Participants bring one wrapped gift, typically within a predetermined price range (tax not included).
- All gifts are placed in a pile and participants draw numbers to determine the order in which they go.
- Person #1 opens a gift from the pile and announces that a churro maker is just what he wanted.
- Person #2 goes next and has the choice of taking the gift opened by #1 or selecting an unopened gift. If #1’s gift is taken (it won’t be; he’s likely stuck with the churro maker), #1 must open another gift from the pile.
- #3 can steal either of the previously opened gifts or open a new one. If #3 steals one, the victim has the option of taking the other gift that was opened or opening a wrapped gift.
- If, say, #3 steals #1’s gift (she won’t; who the hell wants a churro maker?), #1 cannot steal it right back, not that he’d want to, what with it being a churro maker and all.
- Play continues with each person in turn stealing or opening a gift. Each player is required to pretend to put a great deal of thought into his/her selection even though he/she has had his/her eye on that bottle of Jack Daniels since #4 opened it and is wondering if it is within the rules to drink the bourbon before someone can steal it, because, really, getting drunk is the only way he/she is getting through this.
- Once the last person has gone, player #1 can swap gifts with any other player and get rid of the friggin’ churro maker.
- No single gift can be stolen more than a pre-determined number of times because otherwise that Dunkin’ Donuts gift card would just get passed around all evening.
Wait, there’s more! There are also optional “hardcore” rules.
- After taking your turn, you must keep your gift out where other players can see it. No hiding that Dunkin’ Donuts gift card in your bra.
- When it’s your turn, if you touch a wrapped gift you have to open it. If you touch an unwrapped gift, you should probably get your hand out of that woman’s bra.
- If someone tries to take your gift, and you want to keep it, you may protect your present by stabbing the thief with a sharp object. However you can only do this once.
- You may not under any circumstances reveal which of the gifts you brought to the party, even though you were obviously the only person who put any thought at all into choosing a gift, and even though some people who shall remain nameless seem to have stayed well below the maximum price limit.
I may have made up and/or embellished a couple of those, but you get the idea.
For me, the most enjoyable part of our Yankee swap was listening to Barbara describe the rules to each of our relatives over the phone. “Yes, that’s right, you can steal it, but then someone else can steal it from you. No, it doesn’t have to be nasty…”
We got through the thing okay, although poor Aunt Ellen ended up with a gift certificate for a movie theater chain that has no locations in her area and couldn’t entice anyone to steal it from her. This result was further aggravated by Barbara suddenly taking my years of berating to heart and stealing the gift Aunt Ellen really wanted.
Barbara and I ended up with a bottle of wine and a cooking knife. And I’ll tell you this: once I had that knife, our gifts were safe.
See you soon.