What Is A Yankee Swap Gift Exchange?

what is a yankee swap gift exchange

Looking for a fun way to exchange gifts with friends, family or workmates? A yankee swap gift exchange might be just the thing to make swapping gifts more fun and exciting. But, what is a “Yankee Swap”, where did it come from and how do you play?

The term for a Yankee Swap has a few supposed origins. Some say it was coined in 20th Century New York when immigrant settlers would notice locals exchanging silly gifts at the market. Others say it alludes back to the Civil war where generals from the Confederates and the “Yankees” would swap prisoners with one another.

The term “Yankee swap” can be found in a Walt Whitman collection, as early as 1855, included in a list of “quintessentially American” things – though exactly what he means by it is unsure.

Whatever the origins were, in present day the Yankee Swap gift exchange has become a popular Christmas tradition across the world.

It is a gift exchange game with a cruel twist, pitting families and work parties against one another to see who will claim the best gift. So what is a Yankee Swap?

what is a yankee swap

How To Play The Yankee Swap Gift Exchange

Before the party, all participants are expected to buy something completely random, usually within a chosen price range.

Guests will bring this wrapped gift to the party and place them all in the middle of the people gathered. The names of everyone participating are then written down on scraps of paper and thrown in a hat. Then the fun begins.

how to play yankee swap

Round 1: The first name pulled out of the hat gets to choose the first gift. He/she opens it and presents it to the rest of the group. The buyers of each gift should remain anonymous throughout.

Round 2: The first person then picks the second name out of the hat. The second person picks another gift and shows it to everyone. Then they must decide if they want to keep that gift or Yankee Swap it with the first person’s gift. If he does, then the round continues and the first person loses his present.

Round 3: The second person then pulls the third name out of the hat. He/she gets the option to swap their gift with the first or second person, or just hold on to their gift: if they like it! The round continues until all gifts have been swapped or someone has decided not to swap. Important to note that when a gift has been swapped it can’t be swapped again for the remainder of the round.

This process continues until all presents have been unwrapped and all names have been pulled out the hat. The gift that you are holding when the game is over is the one you get to take home, like it or not.

Of course, there are optional rules to the Yankee Swap gift exchange, depending on how controversial you want the game to be. One popular variation states that when it’s a person’s turn, they can take from the middle or they can steal from someone else. 

If they choose to steal from someone, then that person must take from the middle. There should always be the same amount of presents in the middle as names in the hat.

Another rule is to put a limit on how many swaps per round. If you have a big group then rounds could go on for a looong time. In which case it might be sensible to put a four or five swap limit.

You can also create a rule where the first person who picks, who is at a distinct disadvantage, gets to swap again once at the end of the game to balance the scales.

what is a yankee gift swap

The Yankee Swap gift exchange is often compared to the White Elephant game. And in many regards they are the same game with different names and origins. The significant difference between the two is the type of gift that participants are expected to buy.

Whereas in Yankee Swap you are supposed to buy something spontaneous but also useful, in White Elephant the goal is to buy something tacky, cheap and ridiculous. For example: a tie for work vs. a musical tie.

As with every game there are multiple variations and no right way of playing it. The core principle of the game is that players will swap their gifts and many families will have their own set of customised rules.

Just make sure that everyone participating knows and understands the rules of how you’re going to play Yankee Swap before you start the game, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

We think Yankee Swap is an “elfishly” fun way to exchange gifts – have fun and embrace the gift giving frenzy! With all that in mind, happy holidays and happy chaos!

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