The Domestocrat Guide To The Perfect Yankee Swap Experience

Being Boston born, raised, and permanently resided, Yankee Swaps have been a holiday highlight and tradition my whole life. Not familiar? A Yankee Swap (also known as White Elephant Gift Exchange, Parcel Pass, Dirty Santa, Gift Swap, etc.) is a holiday gift swapping game where a group of people purchase one gift for their annual holiday gathering. The group then all draw numbers (1 through however many attendees there are) and select one mystery gift to unwrap in order. Based on their number in the order, the person whose turn it is can keep the item or “swap” (read: take) any gift that was unwrapped before them.

It sounds cruel…because is kind of is! I’ve participated in a lot of Yankee Swaps, between friends, family, and coworkers. The Swap is usually entertaining and enjoyable but this can totally depend on the quality of the gifts brought to the swap and the best practices of the game. Which leads me to this post. So let’s dive in, shall we?

Here are my Do’s and Don’ts For The Perfect Yankee Swap Experience:

  • Set your price limit up front. Depending on the type of crowd and number of people involved, the price limit could change drastically. For the majority of Swaps I’ve participated in, the average is usually somewhere between $15 – $25.
  • Yankee Swap gifts should be crowd pleasers; something everyone would like to receive. Most of the time these are practical gifts, believe it or not. Which leads me to my next tip…
  • No booze. I know that a wine basket is really festive and the locally craft brewed winter warmer beers at Whole Foods are exactly the price limit, but booze isn’t a gift everyone loves and can actually be insensitive at times. Just don’t do it.
  • Another note on crowd pleasing gifts – this means absolutely no kids toys, plants, clothing, or gift cards (with just one exception, see below).
  • No homemade gifts. I love DIY just as much as the next craftgrrl but anything homemade will go unappreciated at a Yankee Swap (unless it’s a specific Christmas Cookie themed swap or Knit Something Magnificent themed swap). Save these thoughtful, time intensive gifts for a specific person. They are much too intimate and special for a Yankee Swap.
  • Bring a gift you would want to receive back. It’s considerate and adds more quality items to The Swap. Also, it goes without saying, regifting anything into a Yankee Swap is repugnant.
  • Don’t go over or under the price limit. It’s set for a reason and people can tell when you do that.
  • Don’t be afraid to be cutthroat! I will leave my grandmother high and dry with a set of wrenches if she has the artisanal salami collection I want. Being competitive only adds to the fun, it’s called a Swap after all!
  • Always have a booby prize for the person who ends up with the worst gift. Invariably someone is going to end up with a Chia Pet or a Snuggie, and when they do it will be nice to console them with some Ghirardelli hot cocoa.

Now that you have Yankee Swap etiquette down, here are my suggestions for perfect Yankee Swap gifts (these suggestions are assuming a $25 price limit):

  • Cooler on Wheels – This was the hot item at my family Yankee Swap this year and we ended up with it! This is perfect because anyone can use it – the tailgater, the foodie, the camper, the BBQer, the beach bum.
  • A Nice Tupperware Set – I know, overtly simple and boring but still, this was the second most popular thing we fought over at my family Yankee Swap this year (and we ended up with it!). This set has locking lids and a range of sizes. Perfect for anyone who is always going through tupperware, like us.
  • Movie Gift Pack – Load up some movie candy, popcorn, and gift card to your local movie theater chain and you have an awesome gift anyone would like. This, by the way, is the only instance where a gift card is acceptable.
  • Hot Cocoa Gift Pack – We made up one of these for my family Yankee Swap: we took our favorite hot cocoa, two adorable mugs, and these cute hot cocoa spoons and created a little gift set. It was perfect!
  • Fancy Popcorn Set – Who doesn’t love Moose Munch, c’mon now.
  • Local Sports Team Blanket – For us, it would be a Patriots blanket. Someone brought one of these to my family Yankee Swap and it was a hot item!
  • iPhone Speaker Dock or Bluetooth Speaker – This is a great gift for a swap where kids and teens are involved. Everyone has an iPhone and sometimes headphones just don’t cut it when you want to have a dance party in your room.
  • One Year Subscription to a Cool Magazine (online or print) – The emphasis here is on cool; I’m not talking TIME or People here, I’m talking about unique and specific interest mags like Ready Made, Beer Advocate, or The Art of Eating. You could really get creative with this depending on the crowd too (ex. foodies, beer snobs, college football fanatics, etc.)
  • Dunkin Donuts Coffee – It is insane how many eyes will get gouged out for this stuff.
  • Fran’s Chocolates’ Coconut Gold Bars – The unbelievably coveted, pimped by Bobby Flay, delicious fancy candy bars. I’ll tell you a secret – I tried to buy some for John for Christmas this year and they were sold out. Can’t get them anywhere, they are that good.
  • An awesome Adult Coloring Book and coloring supplies – Super trendy and fun!
  • A Classic Cookbook – My favorites/suggestions: The complete America’s Test Kitchen cookbook, King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here For The Food, or The Moosewood Cookbook.
  • The First Season of A Really Great TV Show – The first season will get anyone hooked if the show is good enough. My top picks: Portlandia, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Orphan Black30 Rock, or Dexter.
  • When in doubt, Lottery Tickets.

I hope you’ve enjoying my tips, tricks, and suggestions. Report back with your best swaps!

Author: Domestocrat

I'm a lady who enjoys photography, football, cooking, long drives with the windows down, This American Life, kettlecorn, hot yoga, pop punk, my nephews, my cat Reggie, and my home: Boston.

22 thoughts

    1. I debated on that one. The reason I like them for swaps is because I would never waste money on lotto tickets myself but it’s fun to indulge on someone else’s dime ;) But if you’re talking about getting a return for equal value to what you spent on the gift you brought, I totally get that too and I wouldn’t like that.

      But as an example, my grandparents don’t need or want anything so even when they do our family swap, they would rather take a fun throwaway thing like lotto tickets than something else. You know?

      1. That’s pretty much it–if i’m putting in something that’s worth the 20 bucks agreed upon, it’s a little irritating to get something that’s probably worth nothing back. It doesn’t really fit the spirit of the swap. Plus it’s kind of a boring swap gift. A gift card is much more interesting, and it’s in the spirit of everyone putting in an equal amount to the whole thing.

        Lotto tickets are only okay if attached to something else, IMO.

          1. LOL. Scratch tickets and wine were the two most fought over gifts at my company’s Yankee Swap.

            I think yout touched on this at the beginning of your post, it also depends on your group. The scratch tickets turned into thing because the first person to swap for them did so with vigor. And my entire office is a bunch of alcoholics. We rarely drink together, but it’s kinda known that outside the office we can comfortable drink a bottle of wine.

  1. I think another exception to Gift Cards is an itunes gift card. There were about 4 at my family’s yankee swap this year and everyone of every age wanted one. I know not everyone has a computer, but it’s such a hot item that it will get stolen.

    Plus, my family cheats and sometimes does the post swap trade.

  2. At my work swap, the most coveted item was one of those universal cell phone chargers that anyone can use on the go. You just charge it up and it can charge your phone twice without being plugged in. I was pretty surprised that it was fought over!

    That and someone put in $25 worth of change, literally. I fought and ended up getting it since I had the last number (well someone else had #1 but kept their gift, since we played it where #1 is the best number and can steal from anyone).. Usually I wouldn’t want the change but I got my money back and some of those other gifts were pretty bad (and definitely violated your list above)… Like, who seriously wants SQUIRT GUNS?! Nooot me. I’ll take the money!

    My family has an epic swap every year. But we do two swaps. A normal “nice gift” Yankee swap and a joke grab, so no one in the Yankee swap gets screwed over. Tradition is that every year, one person gets stuck with this little ceramic monkey that has been in my family for 20+ years. One year I got it, and it was the first time it traveled outside of Boston… so I took photos of him in all sorts of touristy spots in Seattle. My family LOVED it.

    1. It’s so funny what is hot and what isn’t at swaps, right? There were some cash swap gifts and my teenage cousins went crazy for those!

      I like the idea of two swaps, double the fun!

  3. Kim, I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time and I just hope you know that *this* is what you are meant to do. You’re really interesting, versatile, and just way more down to earth than your counterparts. Trust me, I’ve read most of them, and despite all their type A-ness, dedication, and other stuff, you are, by far, the most interesting. You might not know it yet but I really feel this is what what you are meant to do. Keep being an inspiration!

  4. Regifting is “repugnant”? really? That is how a lot of these types of gift swaps started, dear. It’s only very. very recently that people started asking for new-items-only. It’s greedy. The point of a gift swap is to swap out gifts you already recevied.

    1. I disagree strongly with this. It doesn’t matter how the tradition started, but how it is perceived now. And nowadays, if you re-gift something you don’t want, people won’t appreciate it.

  5. You’ve explained it so nicely here. Thanks so much! Planning on doing this for the first time with my own family this Christmas!!

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