Fifteen years ago at a family Christmas party, I played my first game of Yankee Swap, AKA, Dirty Santa, the White Elephant gift exchange, etc. You know, the game where you bring a gift already wrapped, pick a number, open a present and get your present stolen. This game has become a staple at holiday parties, and I’ll be darned if I can figure out how it embodies any type of holiday, generosity or giving spirit.
You may say, “Oh, it’s all in good fun,” or “Have a sense of humor,” but every time I’ve been to one of these parties, I’ve witnessed hurt feelings, under the breath comments, or out-right yelling. Now, that might be a regular ordeal at some holiday dinners with family, but family is crazy. We all know you can’t choose your relatives. But you can choose whether or not you wish to be involved in a game at Christmas time where you steal presents.
At my first Yankee Swap, I received an adorable Mikasa candy dish etched with snowmen. I was delighted, and I had no idea how the game worked. No poker face. My boyfriend’s mother “Lola” planned to steal my gift. When she reached for it, I held it tight and said, “Please don’t take this. I have so few nice things.” Lola laughed and made a remark about how she knew where my daughters got their whining from. Lola let me keep the Mikasa candy dish. I still have it, and I use it every Thanksgiving and Christmas to hold olives. I always think of Lola and her remark when I place the dish on my dinner table.
I married into a family where my sister-in-law, “Margie,” loved Yankee Swap, organized every Christmas gift exchange, with a $50 limit and a strict rule: no gag gifts. My last Yankee Swap with the family was a doozie. Of course, Margie ended up with number 1, which meant she got to inspect all the gifts at the end of the game and steal whichever one she wanted. I had received a beautiful wrought iron wall hanging. Margie stole it, which coincidentally meant I ended up with the gift I had brought. When I said that out loud, she leapt up in front of the crowded room and yelled, “I’m so tired of this bullshit!” She ran over to her husband and insisted he take her home. He refused. At the end of the long silent night, I left without the wall hanging. After the new year, when my husband’s grandmother called me to come get the wall hanging, I donated it to a silent auction for charity. That was last time I participated in Margie’s Magical Christmas gift exchange.
At my last Yankee Swap, there was a $20 max for the gifts. I brought a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer set of figurines: Hermie, the Bumble, even Cornelius, from the perennial show. The person who received it kept waving it in the air, saying, “Someone steal this, please.” I should have. One person brought in a bag full of used books that stunk like mildew. Every gift I received–wine, gift certificates, pewter trivet–was stolen. I tried desperately not to get attached. Incidentally, my best friend stole the trivet. All is fair during the war on Christmas I guess. Another friend asked me if I was the person who brought the hookah. Wow, I thought, what am I putting out there? I left the party with a note pad and water bottle.
When I looked up who invented Yankee Swap, I couldn’t find a particular person. But the rules emphasized that the game was light-hearted, just for fun, and whimsical. Isn’t stealing a bit greedy and mean-spirited? I see nothing wrong with the boring old Secret Santa, or making someone a gift just for them, or sending them a card that says I love you. But then again, I spend most of my money on books, vintage clothing and dog treats.