The Yankee Swap: A Holiday Advisory

North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni, examines a homespun tradition that has morphed into a war game among family, friends and co-workers.

Yankee Crap Swap - Christmas 2009
Photo credit: Daniel Ironhide on Flickr

It’s that time of the year when “Good will to all!’ collides with wretched excess and gaudy displays of consumption. Sadly, we risk the danger of stampedes and unprovoked assaults at crowded malls as Christmas shopping has morphed into a near-death experience. And, a sluggish economy has continued to stoke a peculiar tradition at office parties and holiday gatherings: the Yankee Swap. The name itself conjures up a simpler time of self-reliant farmers, white church steeples, and snow falling softly on New England village greens. Definitely a misleading notion.

An anthropologist might describe this stress-inducing ceremony as an exchange of unwanted articles shrouded in bright-colored paper torn to shreds as disappointed participants discover an object’s true worth. The drawing order is predetermined in a random pull of numbered slips matching the total contestants. Gifts given anonymously are unwrapped beginning with the lowest numbers. Ostentatiously feigning satisfaction to conceal genuine dismay, one can choose to keep the object or demand an exchange with any prior recipient.]

Monetary limits on the value of the presents are meant to keep everyone within a reasonable budget – say $10, $15 or $20. But, such guidelines are invariably disregarded. Misers package yard-sale debris. The laziest plunk down pricier things like bottles of cloying, sweet liqueurs. This, of course, makes other players, who have worked hard to keep within group-imposed fiscal constraints, feel like cheapskates. The immediate objective of this communal exchange is to leave with a usable gift that retains value or, alternately, a relatively worthless thing easy to store in a drawer for recycling in next year’s swap. The ultimate goal is to exit a holiday party still smiling and on speaking terms with other swappers.

A Yankee Swap can degenerate into a war game. Some participants strategically bring along their children as human shields who they keep distracted by letting them drool over their parent’s selected gift. After that, no other players will risk an infant’s tears (even worse, saliva) by swiping a box of candy from a baby who has bonded with Mama’s prize. Some swappers enter into mutual non-aggression pacts promising not to grab an ally’s gift if they draw a higher number. Just as in international relations, such agreements are casually disregarded when the allure of an interesting bauble is there for the taking. Then there are the malcontents who resent being roped into this holiday ritual. They act out in passive-aggressive ways by breaking the seal of a food gift, grabbing a handful of whatever, and passing the container around the table.

‘Tis the season to be jolly? If you wish to keep it that way, I suggest you avoid this holiday ritual. Because just how badly do you need a lettuce spinner or a corkscrew? And, if you are left with no way out, I recommend that you practice smiling in the mirror so that you can maintain your composure when somebody swaps their peppermint-striped cheese knife for your pint of maple syrup.

Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.

4 Replies to “The Yankee Swap: A Holiday Advisory

  1. As I advise a friend of mine, who every year is unhappy to receive his gift back in a Yankee Swap: buy a gift that you yourself would want to receive. Worse comes to worse you will end up with a decent present.

    ps – my friend never learns, he waits until the last minute, runs to CVS and purchases one of those hideous boxed gift sets that miraculously ends up back in his possession. Last year, through numerous swaps he again ended up with his CVS cocoa set, when asked if he was pleased, his response was: “I Hate Cocoa!”

    Happy Holidays!!!

  2. So well written, Tom. I really appreciate the contributions you make to our community. Peace to you and your loved ones during this sacred season!

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