Yankee Swap Themes: Add a Twist to Your Holiday Gift Exchange

Ideas for holiday gift exchangesThe Yankee Swap gift exchange has become the highlight of many annual holiday gatherings, from the mandatory office party to the casual get-together with friends and family. But playing by the same rules every year gets boring after awhile. To make sure your party stands out in people’s memories years later, consider one of the following Yankee Swap themes to give the festivities a unique flavor.


This is a classic. Simply ask people to bring an item from home that they don’t use. One of the big attractions of this theme is that there are typically some pretty funny stories behind the unwanted items. People may also be amused to see their tacky old knickknack become the subject of a cutthroat fight (yes, it happens).

Do It Yourself

Like the re-gifting theme, this is a great option when you don’t feel comfortable asking everyone to buy something new. It’s also a great way to learn about other people’s talents (or *ahem* lack thereof).


Ornaments are inexpensive, gender-neutral, and come in a lot of varieties – all of which makes them ideal for mixed company. To twist things up, you could make it an ugly ornament party, and award an additional prize to the person who brings the best (worst) decoration.

Letter of the Alphabet

This one is pretty simple in concept, but presents a shopping challenge to the participants. They have to bring something to the party that starts with a particular letter of the alphabet. Assign the same letter to everyone, or give each person a different one (for example, perhaps each person has to bring a gift that starts with the first letter in their name).

Naughty or Nice

The only difference between this and a normal gift exchange is that people are allowed – nay, encouraged – to bring lewd gifts if they choose. This isn’t appropriate for all crowds, but could be a hoot for a group of girlfriends (don’t forget the wine). Sort of like a bachelorette party in December.


Honestly, you can’t go wrong with candy, especially if kids will be swapping too. Perishable food is a bit iffy at a time of year when there are so many other goodies in circulation. An alcohol theme can be perfect in the right group, and add some spirit to the party afterward. The options aren’t limited to these, however – just about any variety of food or drink could work.

Something… (Insert Your Idea)

For this theme, provide people with an open-ended guideline such as Something you can lick (mixes nicely with the Naughty or Nice theme). Another option: Something for the bathroom. As you can tell, this allows people to be creative – not to mention hilarious.

Bad Yankee Swap Theme Ideas

There are plenty of worthy theme ideas, and you can probably come up with more if you give it some thought. However, there are some themes that don’t work so well, for reasons that might not seem obvious at first. Here are a few ideas to avoid, whether you’re in charge of the Yankee Swap or just a participant looking for a great gift.

Books or Movies

A few years back, a gift exchange of books or movies made a lot of sense. But in 2013, there are Kindles, iPads, Blu-Ray, DVD, etc. People very often won’t enjoy something that’s not in the right format. Plus, with the internet, people are used to finding content highly tailored to their interests, and are less willing to try someone else’s recommendation. One notable exception would be coffee table books, which are really more like decorations than reading material.


This one is pretty obvious. Even if everyone at the party is the same gender, they’re unlikely to be the same size. Plus, when it comes to fashion, tastes vary dramatically.

Having said all that, whether a theme works or not really depends on the group. The better you know the people who will be participating in the Yankee Swap, the easier it will be to come up with an appropriate theme. If it’s a diverse group, or one you don’t know personally, then do yourself a favor – stick with something basic.


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