Take This, Please: The Yankee Swap

Choose wisely or you might get a moose that poops jelly beans.



Illustration by Brad Fitzpatrick

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus-for-the-Rest-of-Us, or my favorite, National Fruitcake Day, some time along you'll likely enjoy (or be subjected) to a Yankee Swap. Instead of buying gifts for everyone at the office, in the club or the family, you buy one gift, throw it in a pile and, after a spirited swap-a-frenzy, walk away with something you didn't know you wanted, like a can of Spam or a video-biography of Ivana Trump.

If you've never experienced a swap, you should know that participants draw numbers. #1 selects the first gift. Unwraps it. Everyone oohs and ahs. Then it's #2's turn. If #2 prefers #1's bottle of Chianti to fuzzy duck slippers he may swap. The holder of #10 may swap her toilet-paper-roll Christmas tree for any gift held by #1 through 9. The idea is to trade something you don't much like, like a sample pack of Viagra, for something you do, like lottery tickets. (Until you scratch the last cherry nose off the last grinning Santa face, you don't know but you might be a winner.)

The modern Yankee Swap echoes the tradition of the wily Yankee trader who, when accused of selling a blind mare to his neighbor, counters, "I told you that hoss didn't look so good."

Warren Angus Wilbur of Seabrook used to tell the story of an "upcountry fella who had pretty good hound" that chased a fox so long "that dang fox was goin' lame on both ends." Later, he swapped the hound for "a spotted puppy and a yella (gold) watch."

Heard the one about the farmer out plowing his field when his big bay hoss drops dead in the furrow? Thinking quick, the farmer rides his other hoss five miles up the road to his neighbor's house. "Charlie," he says, "how would you trade your white hoss for my bay?"

Charlie says he'd trade even. And they shake on it.

"Well, Charlie," the farmer says, "my big bay hoss lies dead in the furrow."

Charlie says, "My white hoss died three weeks ago."

Sometimes Yankee traders out-wily themselves.

The Yankee Swap adds the element of anonymity. Who contributed the talking fly swatter, the scented soaps (slightly used), the boxing nun puppet or the Pooper Moose, who ejects jelly beans when his tail is lifted? We don't know and it's probably just as well.

The scary part: All aforementioned objects are actual Yankee Swap items from actual Yankee Swaps. I asked my 466 closest Facebook friends to name their best and worst Yankee Swap gifts. And they did.

Guess what, some items - like the boxing nun puppet - appeared on both lists. Yankee Swaps, it seems, plumb the puddings of our ambivalence.

Annie wrote: "I own a crazy Virgin Mary hanging lamp from a Yankee Swap two years ago. It's enormous, lantern-shaped with a long chain. I love it."

Jim's favorite was "the welcome mat that said 'Go Away.'"

Susan got a pair of edible undies. "So far," she says, "I haven't been that hungry."

Clearly, the Yankee Swap pushes the limits of good taste.

And yet, whether we end up with the Pooper Moose, the dead hoss, the Viagra or the yella watch, the Yankee trader within each of us can't help but ... grimace.

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