Yankee Swap is One Neat-O Game!


Party Game.

Other Names for This Game


It is probably impossible to determine for certain the author or precise origin. Many myths abound. It's safe to say, this game qualifies as public domain.

While this game almost certainly has Christmas-related origins, it is now a popular party game for any occasion, playing a get-to-know-you role akin to, but more advanced than, pictionary, fictionary, naked twister, and their ilk. It is more advanced than these other party games because it requires some preparation by the guests, but it's well worth it (as measured by pounds of ice broken, number of embarrassing moments that lead to actual conversations, or just about any other measure). I've seen it work at gatherings of jaded gen-X-ers (yeah I know that's redundant -- so's your thinking it redundant, so there) and family reunions or other multi-generational gatherings. It is also common at office holiday parties, particularly the "Catered Yankee Swap" variation, discussed below.

Best Origin Myth I've Found:

"They even played Yankee Swap during the US Civil War. The Confederacy would trade one of their Yankee prisoners for a Confederate prisoner held by the Yankees. This made the Civil War sort of like a fun game and broke up the monotony of all that crazy killing."
http://www.weeno.com/art/0200/203.html, Horatio Smiley on 01/17/2002 10:00 am.

How to Play:

All participants find and wrap a gift of modest value beforehand. Notice I didn't say "buy". Strictly speaking, Yankee Swap gifts must be items you have lying around the house or garage; items you found valuable enough hold onto, but not useful enough to use, are ideal.

At the appointed time and place, all participants converge, bearing gifts that go in a central pile. They each draw a number from a hat. Number One gets the first pick of gifts, but since each gift is wrapped, this isn't much of an advantage, at least initially. Number One must unwrap the gift. Then Number Two picks and unwraps a gift, and gets to either keep it or swap it with Number One. Number Three then opens, and may swap with Two or One. Finally, when the last number has opened and swapped, Number One gets to swap whatever gift they are stuck with at this point for any other gift. This means drawing Number Two is actually the worst possible draw.

I personally think this counter-intuitiveness is part of the charm, kind of like trying to figure out driving directions in New England -- it all makes sense once you grasp that arbitrary decisions made ages ago (for example, that Route 3 North and Route 128 South are the same direction on the road) are still dictating the course of your life today (i.e. you are actually traveling West).

Tips, Mores, and Lore

  • Yankees are cheap bastards, and they fear the new. It's frowned upon to actually go out and purchase a gift for a Yankee swap. The people who do that are the same ones who bring store-bought pie to a bake sale.
  • The gift shouldn't be expensive (after all, who do you think you are?), but should be worth something to someone. Leave your ball of rubber bands or that half-ream of laser printer paper your last boss "gave" to you at home. Textiles (that you have neither bought NOR WORN) are a classic Yankee swap gift, although they are a little too ironic for my taste. You can make a gift of stuff someone else gave to you, or stuff you bought a while ago and never used, from your attic for example.
  • Gift certificates would seem like a natural for a Yankee Swap. Do not fall for this temptation!, it's vulgar because everyone else will know just how much you spent. In my opinion, even the "purchases allowed" variation should exclude gift certificates. Coupons might be an acceptable or even interesting gift, if they aren't expired.
  • If no one item fits the bill, there can be an element of pride (and fun!) creating a uselessly original gift from several items, a sort of gift-collage. Original art (and crafts!) is fine, as long as it is made, not purchased, and not so elaborate as to make the giver appear to be a show-off.
  • Gifts must be wrapped. Wrapping can be plain, or not, but it shouldn't give away the contents of the gift. Since you're not giving anything elaborate like a bicycle or entertainment center, that shouldn't be a problem. Gag wrapping, like wrapping a tiny gift in a much larger box with some pig iron or sand, is encouraged.
  • Also, remember that Yankees are mean bastards and leap at the chance for petty revenge in a socially acceptable setting. Many Yankee Swaps are annual events. You know you've arrived as a Yankee Swapper when you bring the gift from last year's swap and manage to foist it on the original owner.
  • Using your swap to retrieve a gift someone else took from you is a lesser achievement, but still impressive. You would probably have to be in the Number One position to do this. Using your swap to ensure you get the gift you brought to the party may not be against the rules, but it makes no sense unless you are playing under the "purchases allowed" variation of the game (discussed below).
  • Yankee Swaps work best with four or more people, if there's just three of you, you might as well just buy the other two what they want and be done with it already. There is no age requirement for the game, although young children may not grasp the game's subtle charm...


Purchases Allowed: In this variation of the game, it is acceptable to buy gifts, or even give money, as long as it is done in an interesting way.

"We play this game with my family (all relatives except children) every year and the name of the game is not the "Nice Swap" you can also tag team a gift if your husband has a "better" number than you and you plan on getting the gift you brought yourself back ! Another funny thing to do is hide the real gift. Once my aunt taped dollars bills to a roll of toilet paper rerolled it and put it in a bag of bathroom stuff You have to look - go thru - and examine the gift before giving it up You will never know how sneaky people can be."
http://www.weeno.com/art/0200/203.html, Michele Fagone on 12/13/2001 02:57 pm

Catered Yankee Swap: For office parties, in which the participation may be somewhat involuntary, the organizer will sometimes make it easy on everyone and buy the gifts. I think this is silly, because it takes away from the quirkiness of it all, but extensive ethnographic research forces me to acknowledge this common practice.

Round and Round: In another variation, there can be two complete rounds of swapping.

Hobbit Birthday:

"Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly as on this occasion; but it was not a bad system."
The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1, "A Long Awaited Party", page 50.

"Bilbo's residence had got rather cluttered up with things in the course of his long life. It was a tendency of hobbit-holes to get cluttered up; for which the custom of giving so many birthday-presents was largely responsible. Not, of course, that the birthday-presents were always new; there were one or two old mathoms of forgotten uses that had circulated all around the district..."
Ibid. page 65.

"Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort"
Ibid. Somewhere in the Prologue I think.
In my view, a mathom is precisely the sort of gift one would give at a Yankee Swap.

While no Hobbit-lore indicates they swap gifts during the birthday party itself, they'd presumably return the favor and invite their host to their own birthday party and, in effect, complete the swap at that time.


While many will use the term Yankee (or variations Yank and Yanquiis) to refer to inhabitants of the U.S.A., it properly refers to natives of the New England region.

For More Information

  • http://www.ehow.com/ehow/ehow.jsp?id=12843 or if this doesn't work, go to http://www.ehow.com/ and search on holiday gift swap (free registration required).
  • Apparently, denizens of Oz played Yankee Swap. http://www.put.com/oz/ozdi/199801.TXT
  • If you can't get enough of this swapping craze, but don't want to add yet a third round to your Yankee Swap, may I suggest a nice game of Beggar My Neighbor? Or Screw Your Neighbor (read the second W/U about the card game, not the You Don't Know Jack W/U).

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