Yankee Swap Rules and Etiquette: How to Run a Proper Gift Exchange

Guy disappointed with Yankee Swap gift at office Christmas party
Photo: Ion Chiosea, Gennadiy Poznyakov/123RF

The popular Christmas party game, usually called Yankee Swap, goes by many names—White Elephant, Cutthroat Christmas, Grinch Game, Machiavellian Christmas, Kamikaze Gift Exchange, Snatchy Christmas Rat, Redneck Santa—but all boil down to a spirited gift exchange that often leads to hurt feelings and a lot of laughs. While rules are fairly simple, a proper Yankee Swap also requires participants to follow certain laws of etiquette, or it really won’t be very fun.

First the Yankee Swap Rules According to Dan’s Papers (other variations exist):

Before the gift exchange even begins at, say, your office Christmas party, all players must be given an agreed upon amount to spend. Typically, it’s around $20—enough to get something reasonable without having to seriously hurt anyone’s wallet. Participants should then shop for their gifts and bring them to the Yankee Swap wrapped and ready to go.

Everyone should avoid showing their wrapped present to fellow players while placing the gifts together on a table. In other words, it’s much better if no one knows the identity of each gift’s giver.

Once the gifts are in place, numbers equal to the number of players should be placed in a hat. If you have 10 people, you should have the numbers 1–10 on separate scraps of paper inside the hat. Each player then draws a number. The higher your number, the better, because you’ll have more unwrapped gifts to consider (but more on that later). Number 1, however is best, because that person gets the final pick at the end.

The Yankee Swap begins with Player 1 choosing a wrapped gift from the table. The player may not touch any gift but the one chosen. Once you’ve chosen, unwrap the gift and show the other players: “Yay, it’s a fabulous pair of socks in a snowman mug!”

The game continues with each player given the option to steal a previously unwrapped gift from the preceding players, or taking a wrapped gift from the table. If your gift is stolen, you then get to steal someone else’s unwrapped gift—except the one stolen from you—or take a wrapped gift from the table. Once a gift is stolen, it can’t be stolen again during the same round, or the game will go on forever.

This continues until someone unwraps a gift or all available gifts have been stolen.

Finally, after every player, from 1–10, has had a turn, Player 1 may choose from all the unwrapped gifts, trading their gift for any one they want.

A Few Sample Rounds: 

After Player 1 unwraps the first gift in the Yankee Swap—remember that snowman mug and socks?—and shows it to everyone, Player 2 must now choose to unwrap a gift from the table or steal the unwrapped gift from Player 1. “There are so many unknowns on the table, but I’ve been wanting a snowman mug with socks in it for years.”

If Player 2 decides to steal Player 1’s gift, Player 1—who just lost her snowman mug and socks—must then unwrap a gift from the table and show it to the other players. “Oh my gosh, it’s a scented candle and a box of tea!”

With Round 2 finished, Player 3 gets to choose a wrapped gift from the table or he may steal an unwrapped gift from Player 1 or Player 2. “I LOVE scented candles!” If Player 3 steals a gift from one of the other players—let’s say he takes Player 1’s scented candle (given to her in the previous round when Player 2 stole the snowman mug and socks)—Player 1 may then take an unwrapped gift from the table or steal a gift from another player. She may NOT steal back the gift from Player 3 in this round, so she steals the socks and snowman mug from Player 2. With both gifts now stolen, Player 2 must choose an unwrapped gift from the table.

Now Player 4 may steal from Players 1–3 or unwrap a gift.

And on and on it goes.

Now that the basics are down, it’s a good time to talk etiquette. Follow these simple rules and all will be well.

Yankee Swap Etiquette: 10 Rules

1. Spend the Agreed Upon Amount
If you’ve agreed to spend $20 on the gift, SPEND $20 ON THE GIFT! It’s just not ok to buy something that was $20 on sale for $10. There’s a reason it’s on sale. Why not get more bang for your buck? Better, more desirable gifts make for a more active and spirited swap. There’s nothing more depressing than a Yankee Swap where no one wants to steal.

2. No Gift Cards
A $20 gift card to Starbucks or Dunkin is certainly desirable (and a great gift for coworkers), but it really does take the fun out of the game. The idea is to give wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes, ideally appealing to some and repellant to others. Gift cards are unimaginative and easy.

3. Wear a Thick Skin
Not everyone is going to love your gift. Deal with it. Maybe no one will like your gift. Deal with that, too. Picking on someone’s gift choice or unloading a perceived stinker on another player is all part of the fun. People rarely have the same taste. Lighten up, and buy a better gift next year.

4. Be a Good Sport
Adding the the sentiment of Rule 3, don’t get upset if someone steals a favorite gift from you. And don’t make people feel guilty for stealing from you. This is only a game, after all. It’s not about going home with something great—it’s about the laughs you’ll have during the swap. Remember, if you absolutely love something you lost, you can buy it later for $20.

5. Don’t Hide Your Gift
Since you’re being a good sport now, you’ll need to make sure everyone can see your gift, especially when it comes time to steal. In the chaos of a good Yankee Swap, it’s easy to casually push your favored unwrapped gift out of view, but that’s a pretty lousy thing to do. Is it that important to keep your bottle of Dewar’s? Give everyone a chance to steal what you’ve got. Don’t be a brat.

6. Consider Your Gift Wrap
Avoid wrapping gifts in official store paper, giving away its origin and nature. You also might try hiding the size and shape by putting it in an oversized box. A bottle of wine left in its silver bag with yarn ribbon from the local liquor store is stupidly obvious. Make people open the gift before they know what it is.

7. Consider Your Fellow Players
When buying your gift, think about who you’re buying for. If your group is 75% women, maybe avoid buying an extra large men’s shirt. If 50% of your group are alcoholics or kids under 21, don’t by booze. That said, if you’ve got a group split 50/50 between, for example, Trump lovers and haters, a statue of the President might be perfect. Remember, the gift that attracts some and repels other is ideal.

8. No Gag Gifts
Going back to Rule 7, gifts should be desirable to someone. Adding a gift you know everyone will hate is only fun for you. It has no chance of getting stolen and becomes dead weight in the game. Try being a bit more creative.

9. Stay Away from Your Own Gift
While we’re not calling this an actual rule, because things happen, it’s good practice not to take your own gift. Obviously there’s not much you can do if Player 1 has your gift and swaps it for whatever you’ve chosen at the end, but it’s generally bad form to purposely select your own gift. Just buy yourself something for $20 and stay home instead.

10. Don’t Choose Gifts for Their Return Value
Yes, a gift that’s easily traced back to a particular store could essentially be viewed as a $20 gift card to wherever it’s from, but that’s not very fun, is it? Try going for gifts you actually like.

Tell us your variations on Yankee Swap in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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