Yankee Swap vs. White Elephant vs. Dirty Santa
One can rarely make it through the holidays without hearing about, or participating in, some kind of gift exchange. They're a great way to spread holiday cheer without breaking the bank.
There are many different types of gift exchanges, and a dizzying variety of rules. Here's a little primer on some of the most popular ones, in case Barb from Accounting asks you to join in the holiday gift-swapping fun.
White Elephant Gift Swap
How It Works: While there are many variations on the theme, the most common rules require at least 4-6 people. Each brings a small, wrapped gift, usually something useless you had lying around at home, or something tacky or jokey. All gifts are placed in a central area where all participants can see them. Then, everyone draws a number to decide the order in which they'll select gifts. The lucky individual who draws number one chooses the first gift and opens it. Number Two can choose either to open another gift, or steal Number One's gift. Number Three gets to open anew or steal from Two or One, and so forth. The game ends after the last gift is opened. The rules can be made more complicated—i.e. allowing more opportunities to steal gifts, or unlimited swapping.
The Origin: A “white elephant,” as the term is used these days, refers to a useless gift that usually ends up as a burden to the giftee. Popular theory says the term came from a story about an evil genius King of Siam, who had an almost comical way of exacting revenge on any courtier who dared displease him—he would present them with the gift of a rare albino elephant. Wow, great gift right? Not so much. Caring for one of those elephants was a huge and costly pain in the backside, and would likely lead them to financial ruin. As such, it was called a “fatal gift.” The story dates back to the 1850s, but no one has been able to verify that such a king existed. Nonetheless, the term persists in popular culture.
How It Works: It's very similar to the White Elephant swap, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Depending on the company you play with, it could devolve into this classic scene from The Office episode “Christmas Party":
One could argue there is a bit of a difference between a Yankee Swap and a White Elephant Swap. Based on is purported origin, the gifts one brings to a Yankee Swap should be more "useful" than those one would bring to a White Elephant swap.
How It Works: It is very similar to White Elephant and Yankee Swap, though typically the rules encourage multiple rounds of stealing.
The Origin: It's called “dirty” because of all the stealing, of course, and is a popular gift swap particularly in Southern states.
Secret Santa/Kris Kringle
How It Works: As with any of these gift swaps, the “official” rules vary, but typically a group of about six participants or more draw each other's names out of a hat. Without revealing who drew whom, each must get their assigned giftee a present and give it to them “secretly.” It can happen in one round, or over several days. Once everyone has opened their gifts, they usually must guess who their Secret Santa was.
The Origin: This gift swap is considered one of the most popular gift exchanges in the western world. Its exact origins are murky, but clearly derive from a jolly, portly man who allegedly flies around the world giving gifts in late December.
Perhaps the most high-profile Secret Santa in modern times was philanthropist Larry Dean Stewart, who founded the Society of Secret Santas and handed out $100 bills to people on the streets of Kansas City anonymously for 26 years. In a digital twist, Reddit holds the Guinness world record for the largest Secret Santa swap ever, with over 85,000 participants.
Variation: A popular variation on the theme of Secret Santa is the Conspiracy Santa, wherein a group of people are tasked with “conspiring” to get a single person a gift.
How It Works: Just like a Secret Santa, but not exclusively relegated to Christmastime.
The Origin: Pollyannas are really only popular in the South Jersey/Philadelphia/Eastern Pennsylvania area. The namesake is thought to be related to themes derived from Eleanor H. Porter's novel of the same name, particularly the famous part where the lead character, Pollyanna, gets a pair of crutches instead of a doll for Christmas, and the “glad game” she teaches everyone that states there is no gift anyone should ever be displeased about receiving.
How It Works: This isn't so much a swap as it is a party game, but it does involve gift-giving, and is often suggested in lifestyle publications as a means of swapping gifts. The way it works is strings of yarn are attached to gifts and woven around a room and gift seekers must follow their yarn, "Entrapment Style," to their gifts.
The Origin: Cobweb parties or “socials” were apparently all the rage in Victorian England, where there was never a shortage of interesting and creative ways to give gifts.