Yankee swap? A white elephant? Dirty Santa? The Grinch game? A Pollyanna Swap? Do any of these sound familiar? No? Want a clue - What Christmas party, family gathering or holiday celebration would be complete without Christmas gifts? What’s the best way to swap them you ask, oh - you know, it’s with a Christmas gift exchange game!
A Christmas gift exchange is a great activity for a large family, a group of friends, co-workers, neighbours, a church group and more. In fact invite everyone you know as the more the merrier.
There are many variations, and house rules, for gift exchanges but the premise is always the same ; you bring a gift, swap a gift and open a gift. The gifts should be wrapped but not labeled in any way. To make the game fair for everyone it's a good idea to set a maximum spend.
Basic Yankee Swap Rules
Have everyone place their wrapped gift in a pile at the centre of the group. Put numbers in a hat equal to the number of players. For example, playing with 10 players then write the numbers 1 - 10 on pieces of paper and mix them up in a hat, bowl, or anything festive to draw from.
Players take it in turns to draw a number, this will be in order in which gifts are picked so don't forget it.
The player who drew the number one picks a wrapped gift from the pile and opens it in front of the group. Player number two now has a choice, on their turn they can either a) open a new gift from the remaining pile or b) steal from any of the already opened gifts. If they decide to steal an opened gift from another player that player should pick another gift from the pile and open it as a replacement - they cannot swap. Play continues until all numbers have been played and each player has a open gift in front of them.
Sounds fun, right? It is!
Want to mix it up a little? Here are a few Yankee Swap popular variations for some added spice. Use one, a few or make up your own.
First in, Last Out : Good news for player one in this variant. Whoever picked and opened the first gift has one last opportunity at the end of the game to do one final swap and take any gift they want.
Tired Yankee : In this additional rule if a popular gift get’s stole a certain amount of times, a good number is 3, then this gift and the player holding it last are frozen out of the game and can no longer be stolen from.
Blind Draw : When you pick a gift from the pile do not open it, instead keep it wrapped in front of you. Players continue to pick, or steal, a gift in order until everyone has one in front of them - now you can open them! Did you get a good one or did you fall for some devious wrapping and get lured by the largest gift on offer?
One Last Swap : With this variant player one can again decide to swap their gift with any person. If they swap a gift, their recipient can either decide to keep the swapped gift or swap with someone else. This continues until someone decides to keep his or her gift and the chain ends.
The Yankee Swap Version We Recommend
As you can imagine there are hundreds of versions of gift exchange rules online, however, the one we come back to as it has proved the most fun is to use our gift exchange cards.
Like the rules above each player should arrive with a wrapped gift and place them together in a pile, players take it in turns to pick one and sit back down. Strictly no opening, peaking or shaking of presents.
Pick a start player, they should draw and pick a card, read it aloud and complete the action. Some cards require action from the whole group so no snoozing until it is your turn, or hiding the gift you hope to keep under your chair hoping that no one will notice. Continue drawing cards clockwise until, either, everyone has had a turn, or when you have circled twice or three times.
Will you be passing your gift to the player most likely to be on a reality TV show? The one wearing novelty socks? The biggest animal lover? Most likely to survive on a desert island? Or the one with the most intriguing looking gift?
Gift Exchange Theme Ideas
For added fun, it is Christmas after all, pick a theme for the gifts. Some of the best gift exchanges I’ve been a part of are ones that have used a theme. Not only does it help guests with a little direction when shopping but it is also a heap of fun seeing the creative directions people go when searching for the perfect gift. Here are a few creative yankee swap theme ideas for inspiration :
- A gift that is red.
- The theme 'Home Sweet Home'
- The theme 'Fun in a Box'
- The best book you've read.
- Young at heart.
- Something crafty.
- Something scented.
- Something unusual or weird.
- Fits in the palm of my hand.
- What you never knew you needed.
- The letter S.
- Re-gifted gifts.
- More than one.
- The year 2000.
- Something that makes a noise.
- Something made of wood.
- The decade.
- An accessory.
- The future.
- When we were young.
If you have a creative theme you like to use as a group I'd love to hear it too.
Looking for more? Yankee Swap for Kids and more.
Here are a few other fun ways to play and host a gift exchange game with families and children in mind as they are more physical. Of course these can also be enjoyed by adult groups too - I'm looking at your cobweb exchange!
White Elephant Trading Places
This version is great for families and can easily be personalized to make the game unique to your family using in jokes, traditions and more. Players can either bring their own wrapped gifts or the host can provide one for each player in the game.
In this version the gifts stay in place and the players do the moving.
Choose a player to be the host, they can participate in the exchange but will also be reading instructions aloud to the group. Each player takes it in turns to pick a gift and sit back down. Strictly no opening, peaking or shaking of presents.
The host reads a statements aloud, if the statement applies to you you must stand up. All players standing up should race to switch places with each other and sit down in a new spot and in front of a new gift.
Once all the statements have been read unwrap the gift you are holding. Fingers crossed it’s a good one.
Here are some suggested statements, feel free to customise these for your group. Stand up and start trading places if …
- You have watched the Christmas movie ‘Home Alone’ this year.
- You are wearing a novelty Christmas jumper.
- The gift is front of you is larger than a pack of cards.
- You have purchased at least one Christmas gift online.
- You put up your Christmas tree before December 1st.
- You would like to spend Christmas abroad one year.
- You have more than one Christmas tree.
- You are wearing something red.
- Your name begins with a letter in the word CHRISTMAS.
- You have a wreath on your door.
- You bought a Christmas gift before Halloween.
- You were born in December.
- You have seen a reindeer in real life.
- You like the cold weather.
- The gift in front of you is soft.
- You have already finished your Christmas shopping.
- You have received more than 10 Christmas cards.
- You don’t like eggnog.
- You have an Elf on the Shelf.
- You wish you could listen to Christmas music all year.
Cobweb Gift Exchange Rules
The cobweb gift exchange that was popular in the Victorian Era is due a comeback, trust me. This physical gift exchange idea is a heap of fun and is especially loved by kids.
Unlike the others this version requires a little bit of setup by the host and a ball of coloured yarn, string or ribbon for each player, don’t worry it is totally worth the effort.
Tie a small gift to the end of each ball of yarn and hide each gift somewhere in the room (or around the house) - make sure you can’t see them poking out. Start to unravel each ball of yarn under chairs, behind sofas, in bookcases, around light fittings, ornaments, up the stairs and more until each ball is zig zagged all over the house. At this point you’ll see why it is called the cobweb gift exchange!
I’m sure you can imagine what is coming next! Gather your group and give each player one end of a ball of yarn, you could add name tags if you wanted to offer unique presents for guests. When the host shouts ‘Ho Ho Ho’ all players should start to untangle their strings. The gift you find at the end is yours to keep.
How creative and how far your cobweb spreads here is up to you - how far does your ball of yarn reach? This version is a great way to keep kids occupied while you enjoy a Christmas cocktail - win win.
Christmas Left Right Game
This fast paced version is wonderful for children. Everyone sits in a circle holding a present; provided by the host or themselves.
The storyteller reads a story aloud to the group. Anytime you heard the word "LEFT" pass your present to the left. Anytime you heard the word "RIGHT" pass your present right. When you hear the phrase “WE HAVE” swap gifts with anyone else in the group. You’ll have to be quick to keep up, the gift you have at the end of the story is yours to open and keep.
An original story is available here.
Before we go, a quick history lesson. Why is it called the Yankee Swap?
The origin of the name, Yankee Swap, dates back to the 19th century. Yankee is an old term which refers to Americans, largely who lived in the Northern states. The theory has it that during the Civil War Yankee and Confederate generals would engage in prisoner swaps. Prisoner were allocated values based on their ranks, a private was worth another private, for example, where as a lieutenants or a commanding general were more valuable. These swaps were said to save soldiers from the suffering endured in inhumane prisons.
On the other side of the glove however, in Siam (called Thailand today) a “white elephant” was gifted by the king if he was dissatisfied with your performance. These rare albino elephants were very expensive to care for and cumbersome to keep because of their size. As they were sacred you were not allowed to put them to work and as a result they became something that wasn’t useful but instead something expensive to maintain. The phrase “white elephant” was born.
How both of these stories came to be linked to a holiday Christmas game is a mystery!
I hope these ideas have inspired you to have fun this holiday season and host your own exchange - if you have any ideas that work for you as a family I’d love to hear them!