Bryan Paul Sullo

How to Host a FUN Yankee Swap

In Life in General on 17 November 2014 at 4:24 pm

If you find yourself in charge of planning a holiday party, whether it be for kids or adults (or both), a fun activity to include is a Yankee swap. I say, “a fun activity,” but, done wrong, a Yankee swap can be boring or even contentious. If you’re not familiar with a Yankee swap, the basic structure is as follows: All participants bring a wrapped, unmarked gift. They then take turns either choosing a wrapped gift, which they may keep or swap with a gift someone else has already chosen. Here are a few guidelines to ensure your Yankee swap is fun for everyone.

What to Bring

A traditional Yankee swap gift is some item from around your house that you no longer want. Ideally, guests will bring items that are unbroken and still in good condition, and they’ll all be roughly similar in value. (You don’t want one guest to bring a plastic salt shaker, while another brings a 12-year-old bottle of scotch.)

Every Yankee swap that I have been to has asked guests to bring a new item. This might be best if your guests don’t know each other well. If you go this route, make sure to set a price range: “Under twenty dollars,” is usually a good guideline. You don’t want people to feel embarrassed because they weren’t able to afford a gift.

Nevertheless, it is a good idea for the host to supply a few gifts, in case a guest truly can’t afford a gift, or someone forgets, or a last-minute guest doesn’t have time to get a gift. Sitting out of a Yankee swap is no fun.

Additionally, you may want to specify certain classes of gifts that are off-limits. A conservative church group may want to specify no alcohol, or scratch tickets. If you have a mixture of kids and adults, you’ll want to make sure all gifts are somewhat appropriate to all ages. If you have one or two jokers in a group, you may want to ensure their gifts are not inappropriate for the gathering. Gag gifts are great, but racy items, or T-shirts with swear words could make for an awkward time in certain settings.

The Rules

There is a lot of contention over what constitutes the correct set of rules for a Yankee swap. You can do whatever you want, but there are reasons why you might choose one process over another. Whatever you decide, make sure all the participants know your rules up front, or you may end up with grumbling.

The first thing you need to do is to decide what order the guests will go in. This is typically done by drawing numbers from a hat. (Make sure you, as the host, have enough numbers.)

Generally, all of the wrapped, unmarked gifts are placed on a central table. Whoever drew the lowest number goes first, approaching the table, opening a gift, and returning to their place. It’s the second person’s turn (and all subsequent turns) where things get interesting. There are two common ways this can go:

  1. The guest approaches the table and unwraps a gift. She then has the option to keep the gift, or swap it with any of the already opened gifts.
  2. The guest approaches the table and has the option of opening a gift, or of swapping the unopened gift with any of the already opened gifts. If the gifts are swapped, the person who receives the unopened gift opens it immediately. The recipient does not have an option to swap.

I strongly prefer the second method. To me, the decision between something known and something unknown (which could be great, or could be terrible), is most of the fun of a Yankee swap. It’s also a lot of fun to see someone on the receiving end of a swap unwittingly get something better than they had.

I’ve been to Yankee swaps that use the first method (where gifts are opened first) and it just feels like people trading stuff for better stuff. It’s not fun. Aggressive personalities will tend to swap, while empathetic guests will tend to keep things they don’t really want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

One more thing: After all the guests have taken a turn, whoever went first has the option to trade what they have for anything else in the room. This gives the first person a chance to initiate a swap, which he otherwise wouldn’t have.

Remember, the idea behind a Yankee swap is to have fun, not to go home with some great prize. You may need to remind people that a Yankee swap is more fun if they do swap. (If everyone just walks up to the table and takes a gift, what’s the point?) Make sure people show their gifts as they open them. Make a big deal out of each one. Also, make sure they keep their gifts on display, especially the desirable ones.

  1. Thanks… Always screw this up….saved it as we have 2 Yankee Swaps this year…

    Sent from my iPhone


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