What is a Yankee Swap?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Yankee swap is a popular party game that may also be called a white elephant gift exchange. It’s usually played as part of a family or friend gathering or office party during the winter holidays, and it is most popular in places like North America, especially in the US and Canada. It’s essentially a game in which gifts are given, but they’re usually either used items or gag gifts. They’re not meant to be incredibly thoughtful presents and they aren’t designed to be chosen with any one person in mind. Sometimes the game is more fun when the gifts are significantly atrocious, and some families will recycle a few of the worst of these each year to play the game.

Used items or gag gifts are exchanged during the Yankee swap.
Used items or gag gifts are exchanged during the Yankee swap.

The rules of the Yankee swap require each person to bring a gift, and usually each Yankee swap party has rules on what types of gifts to bring, including whether anyone is allowed to spend any money on the gift. Once the gifts and guests are assembled, some type of order is established as to who will choose a gift first. This could be by number, alphabetically or by names in hat.

A Yankee swap may not be as successful if there are less than six players.
A Yankee swap may not be as successful if there are less than six players.

The person who starts the Yankee swap chooses a gift to unwrap and then shows the gift to the other players. The next player goes and may either unwrap a new gift or chose the gift the previous player unwrapped. If the player swaps gifts, the person left without a gift gets to either choose a new gift or steal someone else’s present. Sometimes rules limit the number of times a single gift can be stolen, and they don’t permit swapping the same gift back and forth between players.

Eventually, and usually with much merriment and silliness, all gifts are distributed. The player who went first may get the “go last” option too. He or she may get to perform a final Yankee swap or elect to keep the gift currently possessed to end the game.

How the Yankee swap is played may be closely defined or rather freeform. Those allowed to buy gifts should probably think about participants in the swap, and whether any gift chosen might be considered inappropriate to some of the players. At work, for instance, a person might want to keep gifts silly, but make sure they’re not considered rude.

The game can take a very long time if too many swaps are performed or if there are too many players. It’s not as funny if there are too few participants. Aiming to have at least six players is a good idea, and the game may not be successful if there are more than about fifteen players, unless people have a lot of time to play.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


We did this for many years as a 'low cost' $5 to $10 gift, and it was lots of fun. It got ugly when the hosts decided to make it $35 to $40 presents. Too many don't spend the amount or get lousy gifts for the $40 they did spend. Keep it cheap and it will stay fun.


We had a form of Yankee swap at my work's Thanksgiving celebration. Ours is called the It Game, and involves the presents being laid out along a large table, which is in a square so that things are all around. People then roll dice, which are passed to one direction. When you roll doubles, you get to take a gift. After all the gifts are claimed, they are unwrapped and examined.

Then, you do the same thing- only if you roll doubles now, you get to steal a gift you want. There is also a specific number that if you roll that, you get to cry "It!" and get something passed to you which symbolizes "it"- usually a stuffed animal.

At the end, whoever still has the "It" symbol gets the prize, and everyone else gets the gifts they stole. If you really want to trade with someone, though, and they agree, that can be easily done too.


@spasiba, I like those sorts of swap parties too, though at things like birthday parties I admit I do love a good gag gift swap.


Another kind of swap party, maybe less fun, and more practical, is a swap party where participants swap good usable items they do not need or want any more.

It is a good way to recycle items you yourself do not need, but somebody else find neat or useful.

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