Yankee Swap vs. White Elephant vs. Dirty Santa

iStock/recep-bg
iStock/recep-bg

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.

Yankee Swap

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.

The Origin: The name of this gift swap is most often associated with the prisoner swaps that took place during the Civil War. The term is more popular in, though not exclusive to, New England.

Dirty Santa

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.

Pollyanna Swap

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.

Cobweb Party

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.

7 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
CNP/Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, under a sweltering sun, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to participate in an event formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From start to finish, it was a passionate plea for civil rights reform, and one speech in particular captured the ethos of the moment. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 17-minute “I Have a Dream” address—which was broadcast in real time by TV networks and radio stations—was an oratorical masterpiece. Here are some facts about the inspired remarks that changed King's life, his movement, and the nation at large.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the tenth orator to take the podium that day.

Organizers hoped the March would draw a crowd of about 100,000 people; more than twice as many showed up. There at the Lincoln Memorial, 10 civil rights activists were scheduled to give speeches—to be punctuated by hymns, prayers, pledges, benedictions, and choir performances.

King was the lineup’s tenth and final speaker. The list of orators also included labor icon A. Philip Randolph and 23-year-old John Lewis, who was then the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (He’s now a U.S. congressman representing Georgia’s fifth district.)

2. Nelson Rockefeller inspired part of the "I Have A Dream" speech.

For years, Clarence B. Jones was Dr. King’s personal attorney, a trusted advisor, and one of his speechwriters. He also became a frequent intermediary between King and Stanley Levison, a progressive white lawyer who had drawn FBI scrutiny. In mid-August 1963, King asked Jones and Levison to prepare a draft of his upcoming March on Washington address.

“A conversation that I’d had [four months earlier] with then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or a check for justice,” Jones recalled in 2011. “From there, a proposed draft took shape.”

3. The phrase “I have a dream” wasn’t in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prepared speech.

Rev. Martin Luther King attends a prayer pilgrimage for freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington
Martin Luther King, Jr. attends a prayer pilgrimage for freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington.
National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

On the eve of his big speech, King solicited last-minute input from union organizers, religious leaders, and other activists in the lobby of Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel. But when he finally faced the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, the reverend went off-book. At first King more or less stuck to his notes, reciting the final written version of his address.

Then a voice rang out behind him. Seated nearby was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who yelled, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” Earlier in his career, King had spoken at length about his “dreams” of racial harmony. By mid-1963, he’d used the phrase “I have a dream” so often that confidants worried it was making him sound repetitive.

Jackson clearly didn't agree. At her urging, King put down his notes and delivered the words that solidified his legacy:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

King's friends were stunned. None of these lines had made it into the printed statement King brought to the podium. “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it,” Jones would later say. “But then, no one I’ve ever met could improvise better.”

4. Sidney Poitier heard the "I Have A Dream" speech in person.

American actor Sidney Poitier, circa 1970
Graham Stark/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier, who was born in the Bahamas on February 20, 1927, broke Hollywood's glass ceiling at the 1964 Academy Awards when he became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field (and the only one until Denzel Washington won for Training Day nearly 40 years later). Poitier, a firm believer in civil rights, attended the ’63 March on Washington along with such other movie stars as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Paul Newman.

5. The "I Have A Dream" speech caught the FBI’s attention.

The FBI had had been wary of King since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was perturbed by the reverend’s association with Stanley Levison, who’d been a financial manager for the Communist party in America. King's “I Have a Dream” speech only worsened the FBI’s outlook on the civil rights leader.

In a memo written just two days after the speech, domestic intelligence chief William Sullivan said, “We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” Before the year was out, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy gave the FBI permission to wiretap King’s telephone conversations.

6. In 1999, scholars named "I Have a Dream" the best American speech of the 20th century.

All these years later, “I Have a Dream” remains an international rallying cry for peace. (Signs bearing that timeless message appeared at the Tiananmen Square protests). When communications professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M used input from 137 scholars to create a list of the 100 greatest American speeches given in the 20th century, King’s magnum opus claimed the number one spot—beating out the first inaugural addresses of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.

7. A basketball Hall of Famer owns the original copy of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

George Raveling, an African-American athlete and D.C. native, played college hoops for the Villanova Wildcats from 1956 through 1960. Three years after his graduation, he attended the March on Washington. He and a friend volunteered to join the event’s security detail, which is how Raveling ended up standing just a few yards away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” address. Once the speech ended, Raveling approached the podium and noticed that the three-page script was in the Reverend’s hand. “Dr. King, can I have that copy?,” he asked. Raveling's request was granted.

Raveling went on to coach the Washington State Cougars, Iowa Hawkeyes, and University of Southern California Trojans. In 2015, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although a collector once offered him $3 million for Dr. King’s famous document, Raveling’s refused to part with it.

What Happened to the Physical Copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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