Rules of the Yankee Swap

Oddly, it was at a church Christmas party in Atlanta, Georgia, that I learned the rules to the Yankee Swap.

I've lived almost half my life in New Hampshire, but as I've often noted, I grew up in the South. Oddly, it was at a church Christmas party in Atlanta, Georgia, that I learned the rules to the Yankee Swap. When I first moved north I was surprised to learn the way the game is often played here is not nearly as ruthless and cutthroat as it was in that company of otherwise-loving Christians.

I know the rules vary a bit from group to group - traditions run deep - but there are two basic forms of the game. The kinder, gentler (i.e. boring) version is a kind of randomized secret Santa affair where each person can either take one already-unwrapped gift from a colleague or a wrapped one from under the tree. If your gift is taken away you can open a new gift from under the tree and the turn is over. Yawn.

The version I learned allows each person robbed of his or her gift to take any other open gift and only as a last resort would someone go back under the tree and end the turn.

The church swap required at least an hour for a group of a dozen adults and required a judge (usually self-appointed) to make sure that no one tried to take the same present more than once during a turn. More alliances were formed than in a season of "Big Brother." Bold strategies were par for the course and grudges were nursed from year to year. Also, each gift was judged unsparingly for its value, attractiveness and the amount of imagination that went into it. Gifts are offered anonymously so it's not like intentionally making fun of someone for trying to pass off that re-gifted set of lilac-scented candles, but let's just say a Yankee Swap in the South isn't a place for thin skins.

My current swap buddies are my co-workers here at McLean Communications and they are not quite that insensitive (and there's quite a bit more booze under the tree in our office), but once things get going the game takes on a familiar spirit of reckless fun.

An observer might ask why. Why celebrate a season of giving with an exercise in material greed? But then, that's the conundrum of Christmas, isn't it? And while perhaps the Yankee Swap does take a room full of associates and turn them into the equivalent of a bickering family, maybe that's the whole point.

We all know that those people we work with every day are special to us; heck, we spend most of our time each day with them. So for a few minutes (or hours) during the Yankee Swap, we get to treat them just the way we would if they were brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, with all the untidy intimacies of familial love.

And if we're lucky, at the last minute we swap the scented candles and grab that big bottle of Baileys that everyone was vying for.

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