No Sugar Added: When Yankees swap

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On Christmas Eve, I once again had the pleasure of being witness to the odd ritual known affectionately (to some) as the Yankee Swap.

Growing up in northern New Jersey, I’d never heard the word “Yankee” associated with holiday gift giving. Sure, I’d heard of Yankee Doodle and the New York Yankees, but these had nothing to do with Christmas. Perhaps I’d just led a sheltered life, or perhaps it was because I didn’t live in New England. It may have also had something to do with the fact that Christmas Eve at our house didn’t generally involve a swap-appropriate guest list the size of a football team.

Things changed drastically for me when I joined my late husband’s large, half-Italian, Massachusetts-centric family. Christmas Eve meant a house overflowing with people – and we’re merely talking immediate family: parents, brothers, sisters, spouses and an ever-growing array of nieces and nephews. Someone was always pregnant, had recently given birth or was toting along a toddler or two.

The large, bustling family gathered in what could not have been a more traditional and festive Colonial home, and warmed my heart. Laughter, merriment and eggnog were abundant. And then came the Swap – the event everyone anticipated with both joy and trepidation, the cherry on top of the Christmas Eve sundae.

For those not familiar with Yankee Swap, the process goes something like this:

Each participant brings a wrapped, unmarked gift (the value of which must not exceed the predetermined price limit). Guests randomly draw numbers from a hat, and select gifts from the pile in that order.

The person who draws No. 1 picks a gift (that is not their own) and opens it for all to see.

That’s when the otherwise loving relatives will begin plotting which gift they will eventually try to rip from another loving relative’s grasp.

The person who draws No. 2 then chooses a gift and opens it, and must decide whether to keep it or swap it for the first player’s gift. Each person in order then selects a present, opens it and decides whether to keep it or swap it for any other gift someone has already opened.

This continues until all presents have been chosen. Finally, the person who picked first gets to choose from all the gifts or keep what he or she has already received. In the end, the gift you are holding is the gift you take home (unless you steal one from someone else and/or cut a deal).

This may all sound like festive holiday fun, but things can go very wrong.

First, there is the price ceiling.

Many people take this “upper limit” as the amount of money they should spend on the gift. Other people stay as far from this number as possible. This is when trouble begins to brew, because really, who wants to go home with a $5 Snuggy if they have contributed a $25 pair of cashmere socks?

And then there’s the issue of some gifts not appearing as valuable as they really are. A crass remark about some people “being so cheap” in reference to our thoughtfully chosen set of Williams-Sonoma marshmallow roasting sticks (with telescoping handles!) nearly caused me to throw the Yule log at a particular sister-in-law one Silent Night. This was, of course, the same relative whose own Swap contribution was something she’d picked up for 20 American cents while on vacation shopping at a marketplace in India.

I’ve seen parents use their children as decoys to keep their loot – placing the coveted 1995 Santa Beanie Baby into a toddler’s hands so no one would dare claim it. (That one didn’t work on Drew and me and we took it anyway. The kid started crying, but we thought his parents needed to be taught a lesson in Yankee Swap etiquette. Grow up, or go home.)

Yankee Swap is not for the faint hearted. It may sound innocent, but remember, those Yankees have been known to be thick-skinned, fearless. And cheap.

As always, swap responsibly and use protection. You only get one year to recuperate.

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No Sugar Added is Cape Elizabeth resident Sandi Amorello’s biweekly take on life, love, death, dating and single parenting. Get more of Sandi at or contact her at [email protected].