We reached a moment, my extended family and I, where we collectively realized that it was super fun to buy presents for the little kids, but less fun (and considerably more expensive) to buy gifts for all of the adults. That year, I suggested something I had recently experienced at my office holiday party—a Yankee gift swap. I don’t know what makes it “Yankee” other than that it took moving from Chicago to New York to learn about it.
The result is great. Every adult only needs to buy one gift, and you get a fun party game out of the gift giving. The basic flow of the game is as follows (though Wikipedia has an impressive list of variant gift swap names and rules):
- Set a dollar value for the gift. We usually do something in the neighborhood of $25. Everyone should also agree on whether you’re giving serious, thoughtful gifts or tacky white elephant gifts.
- Have everyone bring their wrapped present to the party. Display the presents where everyone can see them.
- For every participating person, put a number in a hat. Then have each person draw a number. (This is a great activity for the kids, both the making of the numbers and handing them out.)
- Person 1 chooses a gift and opens it.
- Person 2 can either steal Person 1’s gift, or open a fresh one from the pile. If Person 2 takes Person 1’s gift, Person 1 then opens a new one.
- Now things start to get interesting. Person 3 can steal any unopened gift, or open a new one. Say Person 3 takes Person 1’s gift. Person 1 can either take Person 2’s gift or open a new one.
- As you get further down the chain of people, the stealing starts to get interesting, and some gifts become quite sought-after. To avoid infinite present stealing, we only let a person steal once per “round” and you can’t steal back a gift that’s just been stolen from you.
- It’s good to go last because you get your pick of the presents. If we’re feeling charitable, we let Person 1 go again at the very end.
All this talk of stealing may make this game sound mean-spirited, but if everyone is taking the game in good fun, and it’s more about the togetherness and less about the presents, it’s happy-making. Spiked egg nog can help. It’s also a real point of pride when the gift that you put in is one of the sought-after ones. Some of the gifts I’ve done well with over the years, both to give and to receive are:
* Cookbooks, especially anything by Mario Batali
* Saké set with a bottle of saké
* Scarves and gloves
* A molcajete (that was fun to take on the plane)
* Dishes and glassware
* Kitchen gadgets
* Funny t-shirts
My family happens to have a lot of foodies, so every year has some of the above list. If you have a sports-loving family or a particularly outdoorsy family, I can see this list looking totally different. Just try to shoot for what you think the most people would like. Of course, I’ve been known to employ the opposite strategy and buy something with a particular person in mind. Through gaming magic, that person usually ends up with that gift.
Though I haven’t tried doing the gift swap with kids, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s hard to get kids focused on “togetherness” and not “the stuff.” We’ve found that it’s good to do this when the kids go to bed. Or we give the kids jobs like shuttling the gifts around the room, and helping to select ones to unwrap. That way we can lazily stay in one spot with our egg nog, the way Christmas was meant to be enjoyed.