Thursday, November 15, 2012

Yankee Swap Conundrums and Tips

Yankee Swaps--also known as white elephant gift exchanges--have become quite the staple of workplace Holiday celebrations in North America.  I tend to be scroogey about workplace holiday celebrations because not everyone celebrates these holidays (and it puts them under pressure) and not everyone can afford the money or time to participate in this stuff.

However, my current workplace does this in a way that is a lot of fun.  We go out to lunch (they pay for it) and we have a $5 Yankee Swap.  The gift cannot be more than $5. (A pricey gift is side-eyed, hard.) We all think joke gifts are awesome (HINT TO COWORKERS WHO ARE READING THIS I WOULD TOTALLY KILL FOR PEZ I AM SO NOT KIDDING I LOVE PEZ). 

Basically, my workplace keeps the swap in the spirit in which it was originally intended--used or cheap items, gag gifts, fun little things.  It's all in good fun and we have a blast. 

Unfortunately, at other parties and with other people, the original intent of the Yankee Swap (a funny and inexpensive party game) has been forgotten.  I've heard some people at other events get awfully stroppy when a participant gives a gift that is obviously below the "reasonable" limit of $25. Well, a) not everyone has $25 to spend on gifts (and this may not be the only party they're attending--this adds up), b) not everyone has the time to get gifts for loved ones and random people at holiday parties and c) even if participation is optional, some people feel like they have to participate. 

So, for party throwers and participants, a couple of requests:

Times are tough.  The holiday season is expensive at te best of times.  Please--institute a low price limit.  $5 is a reasonable price limit.  $25 is not. 

Don't buy something that is obviously over the price limit.  You're going to make everyone else feel badly and let's face it--your missing the point of the party game.

Please be gracious.  If a participant has obviously regifted something or gone to the dollar store, keep your displeasure to yourself.  Don't even complain to someone after the event.  Why? Because it might get back to the giver and they'll feel awful.  Not to mention the fact that you're missing the point of the swap, which at the end of the day is a party game.  Not a chance to show how you can get a $25 gift that Martha Stewart would approve of. 

And you know, keep in mind that if your biggest irritant is a subpar swap gift, your life is pretty sweet.  I'm just sayin'.

Now, for participants who are engaging in a Yankee Swap, you have several options open to you. 

You can make the gift you'll give.  Even if you don't can, sew, craft, or build, you can put something cool together.

However, maybe you do not have the time or the inclination to make anything.  That's okay! There are still inexpensive options open to you.  I just follow a few simple rules:

Unless it's a gag gift, I make sure it is consumable or useful and gender neutral.  Even if someone say, can't eat nuts or drink caffeine, the gifts they get can be offered to guests or re-gifted with a good chance of being used.

Here are things you can get for a Yankee Swap:

Don’t be afraid to regift.  If something has been obviously used, then don’t give it away.  But if you got something from another Yankee Swap or from someone that you haven’t used, don’t feel badly about regifting it.

When in doubt, stick to consumables.  A pretty gift bag filled with packets of nice hot chocolate, teas and coffees will be welcome—even if the eventual recipient doesn’t drink those things, they can offer it to guests.  It won’t take up room and gather dust.  You can also give a small container of dark chocolate, a gift card to Dunkin Donuts, a container of spiced or roasted nuts from the grocery store, box up a variety of instant soup packets for the days they want something extra with their lunch. . .small things that they can eat or easily regift.

Or, if you’d prefer to get something someone wouldn’t consume but would still make good use of, consider these options:  a neutral colored scarf, a small travel umbrella, attractive reusable shopping bags, a keychain with a mini-flashlight (good for people who park in the dark and/or who have cats—cats love to chase the light beams), a funny (G-rated) magnet, a travel mug, a windshield cover (eliminates having to scrape your windshield), a phone charger for the car. . .think small but useful.  These things tend to be more expensive than $5, so shop carefully.  Me, I tend to prefer the consumables for the price--these things are more than $5 on average.  But if your swap has, say a $10 limit, most of these would fit comfortably into that limit.

At the end of the day, if you're throwing a party and having a swap or participating in a swap, keep in mind--these are supposed to be fun party games.  Nothing more.  So have fun.


  1. These types of parties were a lot of fun back when I worked in an office. One idea that I've since read about and thought was a nice idea is to buy an 8 x 8 glass backing dish and a nice Oneida type server to tie onto the package, and bake a coffee cake in it. Once the cake is gone, the dish and server are the present. There are so many good ideas out there for this type of thing nowadays. I like those spa in a jar ideas I see on Pinterest now too. A pair of socks, lotion, hand gel, wrapped in a jar. I know I would like something like that too. Great post, Pamela. :)

  2. I love white elephant gifts! My family has this ceramic duck that gets regifted year after year after year to one of us. It's so stupid and silly but funny every time.

  3. Good words of advice. My daughters' school does a white elephant every year and the dollar amount has steadily risen. I think it's now $15, so times two, that's $30 for me. Anyways, I get so annoyed when the dollar amount is high. My garden club also has a white elephant gift exchange, but our limit is $5. I try to make it something useful. I've given plants (the obvious one for a garden club) and Starbucks cards.

  4. Ah, so it is a bit different to secret santa because you don't know who the present will be going to until after you buy it, am I right?

    When I was an undergraduate, each year we had a £5 secret santa. It was a great way to have a fake-Christmas before the holidays, and everyone got a little gift, either a joke gift or something they would like.

    It's a nice way to make everyone feel festive without breaking the bank!

  5. All the white elephant gift exchanges I have been involved in had different rules than yours. Nothing could be bought unless it was truly ugly or useless and secondhand. We expected people to bring something from their homes that cost nothing to bring with them. There was no price limit because there was no spending expected. To keep the game from lasting forever, a gift could only be stolen three times.

    The lack of spending allowed everyone to focus on fun, not what piece of garbage was bought and passed off as something expensive. I do think that the following of the price rules contributes to happiness for all. If I spend the allotted amount and got something that was obviously junk and not worth anywhere near, my fun at the game is spoiled. There is always a cheapskate.

    Cheapskates show little respect for others. Games are no fun when people feel that someone takes advantage of them and the whole group. I won a Taco Bell dog in a White Elephant game at my house, totally useless to the person who brought it, but a novelty for me. THAT was fun.

    I won a box of naughty pasta one year and took it, cooked, to a dinner where all women were present. Cheap? Fun? Yes and Yes. But the person had won it the week before and passed it on at her house in another White Elephant Christmas.

  6. Some really good ideas there. Thanks

  7. Pamela,
    We appreciate your thoughtful discussion on gift swapping parties. We share your passion for sharing gifts that will add to the conversation during the party game. Our recreation team has tested many different wacky white elephant gifts through the years.
    The best gifts are those that make noise or have some type of movement. The Sling-Shot Chicken is inexpensive and works great in these swaps.
    We have a blog that shares all things white elephant, so if you have a minute we would love to have you stop by and say hello.
    Sarah and Bruce Christensen

  8. I love white elephant gift exchanges! They are fun and save money since you are just regifting something that you already have in most cases. My family passes around the same items year after year as a joke!