What Is Yankee Swap? Gift Exchange Rules & Ideas for How to Play

variations on a classic Yankee gift exchange

Play a game of Yankee swap with your friends.
With Yankee swap, even your best friends could betray you! | Image courtesy Unsplash user Becca Tapert.

“Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!” I screeched as my sister and I dissolved into a pile of giggles at the lyrics. I’ve never been one to take the holidays too seriously, preferring silly Halloween costumes to spooky ones, Galentine’s Day to Valentine’s Day, and birthdays full of mirth.

That’s why I’m obsessed with the funny, frenetic Yankee gift exchange game that I play with my friends and family every chance I get. While I love a classic Secret Santa swap as much as the next gal, it’s always good to mix things up every now and again.

So if you’re looking for a way to add some excitement to your next party, a Yankee Gift swap could be just the key to getting everyone into the spirit of your soiree.

A Classic Yankee Gift Exchange Game

A classic Yankee gift exchange game
What gift will you snag? | Image courtesy Unsplash user Element5 Digital.

I’ll never forget my first Yankee gift swap. My parents had finally decided that my siblings, cousins, and I were old enough to get upgraded from the regular Secret Santa game to the high-stakes world of Yankee gift swap. We set a price limit and painstakingly wrapped our gifts, then got ready to play. Looking back, it’s hilarious to reflect on the bizarre assortment of presents that us 8-12-year-olds purchased. I bought fancy hand towels, thinking they were very adult and sophisticated, while my younger sister got a hamster ball, not considering that none of us actually owned a hamster. The most coveted gift that everyone kept swapping for? A $10 gift certificate to the local ice cream shop, which I sadly did not win (though I’ve definitely made up for lost time with my ice cream consumption since then).

The classic Yankee Gift Exchange adds an element of surprise and competition to your swap. Everyone brings a wrapped gift to the party, then places them on a table or in the middle of the room. Then, everyone draws a number from a hat. The person who draws 1 gets to go first, selecting and unwrapping a present. Number 2 then picks and unwraps a present, but here’s the catch—they can now decide if they want to keep that gift or swap it with number 1’s gift. As the game goes on, higher gift assignment numbers can choose to keep their gift or swap it with anyone who has gone before them. Once everyone has taken a turn, the person who initially drew number 1 gets to make a final decision about keeping the opened gift they’re holding or swapping it with anyone else in the game.

It’s funny to see how cutthroat people can get when presents are on the line, and the action makes it the perfect game to play at office parties and family get-togethers to keep things from getting boring.

A Funny Costume Yankee Gift Exchange Game

A Yankee gift exchange costume party.
Costume parties are just more fun. | Image courtesy Etsy seller wildthingsdresses.

When I arrived at my husband’s work holiday party this year, I was decked head-to-toe in Christmas attire. Elf hat? Check. Jingle bell necklace? Check. Bright green tights? You guessed it! Now, unfortunately, what I had failed to realize was that there was no theme for this party, and I was the only one who’d gone all out with the Christmas attire. But I still had a blast, and I never regret an opportunity to dress up in a crazy costume every now and then.

That’s why one year I decided to host a crazy costume Yankee swap party at my house. I asked that everyone bring and wrap some sort of costume, be it a mask, cape, Santa hat, Guy Fieri wig, whatever. We played our Yankee Gift Exchange Game, with a twist—whether you kept or swapped your present, you had to wear whatever costume item you were holding on to. It was ridiculously funny to see how crazy my grown-up friends went trying to swap Frankenstein masks for cat ears, Superman capes for Wonder Woman arm guards, and more. We wore our final costumes for the rest of the night, and the pictures we captured will definitely make me chuckle for years to come.

A Prank Wrapping Yankee Gift Exchange Game

Prank wrapping paper
Keep them wondering what’s under the wrapping paper. | Image courtesy Etsy seller CharlotteFilshieUK.

Growing up, I was notorious for being able to guess exactly what a present was. I could shake a box or rustle a bag and immediately figure out what was inside—correctly, to the chagrin of my parents who were always trying to surprise me.

Then, one year, I was ecstatic to see a huge box on the table with my other birthday presents. I shook it, touched it, even put my ear up to the side and listened to it, before declaring that it was the new Harry Potter bedspread I’d been hoping for. My parents grinned smugly when I told them my guess. But when I opened the gift, there was something different inside—it was an exercise ball so I could practice my gymnastics moves at home. The square box totally threw me, and from then on, I realized that I couldn’t always judge a present by its wrapping.

I’m always looking for funny gift exchange ideas for my parties, and inspired by the wrapping mix up of my youth, I came up with this variation. Just as in a regular Yankee gift exchange game, everyone brings an unmarked present. But this time, they should purposely try to trick everyone who’ll be trying to pick the perfect present from the pile by wrapping the gift in misleading packaging.

We’re talking big gifts in small packaging, solid gifts surrounded by little moving pieces that make the box rattle, and soft gifts put in hard boxes so they seem as strong as steel. Everyone will be guessing and double-guessing themselves trying to figure out what’s inside. Make everyone say what they think they’ve chosen from the gift pile before they unwrap it, and then get ready to laugh when it turns out their guess is totally off-base.

The Joy of a Yankee Gift Exchange Game

Yankee gift exchange game
A Yankee gift swap is fun any time of the year. | Image courtesy Pixabay user Anestiev.

Parties are always more fun when games are involved. They help even the shyest guests interact with the group, and instead of sitting around making small talk, everyone is engaged in an activity they can bond over.

A Yankee swap definitely fits the bill, no matter if you’re celebrating Christmas, a family reunion, or just a fun Friday night. Almost nothing beats getting a gift, but when you have to work for it through a series of competitive swaps and bargaining, well, your victory feels all the sweeter.

Not sure what to get for your Yankee swap party? Check out Elfster’s $25 and Under Gift Guide here. You can share your finds with us on Elfster’s Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfster, and on Twitter @Elfster.

About Justina H 60 Articles
Justina H. loves creating things, whether it's sewing a dinosaur-themed quilt for a friend's baby or whipping up a healthy meal using seasonal ingredients. Her favorite gifts are always homemade, and her overly-stuffed craft closet and fabric collection are always threatening to take over her apartment. Her favorite Elfster feature is the secret santa app. When Justina's not busy planning her next quilt, chances are she's writing the day away, Facetiming her niece, or engaging in a battle of wills with her temperamental cat. Hit her up for creative ways to bring a DIY flair to all of your fabulous gifts and parties!