Gift exchanges are a big part of American Christmas culture, often with a variety of creative spins on the tradition.
You might be familiar with a game in which everyone brings a wrapped gift (usually in a predetermined price range), places it in a pile and draws a number. Whoever draws No. 1 selects a present to unwrap. No. 2 can then either choose another gift to unwrap or “steal” the first person’s present. The subsequent participants can either pick an unwrapped gift or steal any previous player’s gift. Anyone whose gift is stolen can do the same.
Depending on where you grew up, you may call this gift exchange game Yankee Swap, White Elephant or Dirty Santa (shoutout to my fellow Southerners). Versions of this tradition were around as early as 1901, when mentions of “swap parties” appeared in American publications.
That year, an article from Table Talk Publishing Co. ― which published a number of cookbooks and domesticity-focused magazines ― described “the swap party” as such:
Every guest brings four or five little neatly wrapped and tied bundles. The more misleading in shape as to contents the better. The packages may contain anything from candy to soap, starch, tea, book, handkerchief, sun-bonnet, etc., the more absurd the funnier. Each person recommends their own bundles describing the contents as wittily and in a way to deceive as much as possible. The bargaining becomes very shrewd and merry until all the parcels have been swapped, oftentimes more than once. Then they are opened, the best bargain winning first prize, the poorest compelling the holder to tell a story, suggest a game, sing or recite for the entertainment of the company. The universal verdict ― ‘no trouble and lots of fun!’
Over time, the swap party game has evolved and spread, with different names for the tradition varying by region.
But why do we call it Yankee Swap or White Elephant or Dirty Santa? And do all three names refer to the exact same game?
Unsurprisingly, the term “Yankee Swap” is more popular in New England, though plenty of people in other parts of the country use it to describe this kind of gift exchange. The folks at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania, turned their Secret Santa gift exchange into Yankee Swap in an iconic episode of “The Office.”
The origin of the name seems to date back to the 19th century. In the preface to his 1855 poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman included “the Yankee swap” in a list of quintessentially American things. U.S. foreign trade expanded during the 19th century, and “Yankees” ― a word which could refer to Americans, New Englanders or those from the East Coast or Northeast, in different contexts ― allegedly had a reputation as constant traders looking to make a swap.
One disputed origin theory dates the name “Yankee Swap” to the Civil War, when Yankee and Confederate generals would engage in informal prisoner swaps. According to the History Channel, Union General John Dix and Confederate General Daniel H. Hill agreed to a system in 1862 in which soldiers were assigned values based on ranks. One private was worth another private, while lieutenants were worth three privates and a commanding general was worth 60 privates.
Prisoner exchanges saved soldiers from suffering in inhumane prisons like Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia, where nearly 13,000 Union prisoners died of starvation, exposure and diseases like scurvy and dysentery. There isn’t strong evidence for a link between this wartime practice and the holiday game, however.
If you believe the Civil War origin story, you might be of the mindset that Yankee Swap gifts are supposed to be “useful” or of higher quality than the ones in White Elephant.
According to popular legend, the term “white elephant” is related to an old practice from kings of Siam (today, Thailand). If the king was dissatisfied with one of his subjects, he would gift them a rare albino elephant. Apparently this gift was burdensome because white elephants were extremely expensive to care for and could lead to financial ruin ― giving it the label “fatal gift.”
In Thai and Buddhist cultures, white elephants ― which are not snow white but rather more ruddy-colored or pinkish ― have a sacred quality. According to the legend, those who received these special gifts could not refuse them, and to make matters worse, they were not allowed to put the sacred animals to work. As such, they were both valuable and useless, hence the definition of “white elephant” as something that isn’t particularly useful and has a high cost of upkeep.
This story of the white elephant as a “fatal gift” from a king appears to be more of a myth, though. In fact, in Elephants of Thailand: Myth, Art, and Reality, historian Rita Ringis wrote: “[N]o Siamese monarch ever considered white elephants ‘burdensome’ nor gave them away, for according to ancient tradition, possession of one or many of these symbolized a king’s virtue or barami.”
Scholars have traced the idiom’s origin in American lexicon back to the mid-19th century, a time of renewed U.S. interest in economic relations with then-Siam (and therefore, more travel writings with exotic stories from traders).
Another theory in the White Elephant origin story is that Western Union founder and Ivy League university namesake Ezra Cornell popularized the term at 19th-century social gatherings. The legend is widespread but often cited with little confirmation as to its veracity. Yet another story involves circus impresario P.T. Barnum sparing no expense to bring a white elephant to London ― only to find audiences disappointed by the fact that the elephant wasn’t snow white but rather just a lighter color than others.
Given the origin theory and modern definition of the idiom, the game White Elephant is meant to involve a bunch of useless, burdensome joke gifts.
White Elephant appears to be the most popular name for this type of gift exchange and doesn’t have strong regional ties.
The term Dirty Santa is popular in the South. While there doesn’t seem to be much information on the exact origin of this term, presumably it has to do with the fact that the game can get a little nasty (à la Jim Halpert’s preferred name in “The Office,” Nasty Christmas).
Indeed, there’s a deviation from traditional Southern manners as people can get pretty ruthless with their stealing and tend to openly show their distaste for certain gifts ― gasp!
In my experience, Dirty Santa can involve nice gifts or gag gifts, and it’s often not as strict with limiting the number of steals per round or per gift.
Different websites lay out different rules for all three title variations, so there’s room for customization. Many say that gifts may only be stolen once per round and three times per game, or suggest alternative ways of determining the order for participants.
There are also other names for this kind of gift exchange beyond those popular three, including the Grinch Game, Thieving Elves, Snatchy Christmas Rat, Cutthroat Christmas, Redneck Santa, Machiavellian Christmas and Kamikaze Gift Exchange.
Whatever you call it, remember to establish the ground rules with your group before getting started ... and try to play nice.