Just as there are a lot of different names for the Yankee Swap Gift Exchange (White Elephant, Dirty Santa, etc.), there are also many rules variations. But at its core, the game is really very simple. Here are the basic Yankee Swap rules, with a few of the more popular twists thrown in.
Before the Game
Each person participating in the Yankee Swap needs to bring a gift of some sort. Most often, the gift should be a new item that falls within a price range set by the swap organizer ($20-25 is common). Alternatively, the gift could be something the person already owns, a handmade item, or something that fits a particular theme. It’s really up to the organizer to decide.
Participants should bring their gifts to the party wrapped. Typically, no gift tag is put on the gifts, so the identity of the giver can be hidden until after the gift is opened.
The organizer should decide the order in which people will take their turns. For larger groups, it’s highly recommended to have a pre-randomized list ready to go, or a hat with everyone’s names in it. For small groups, it’s easy enough to decide this stuff on the fly.
The Game Itself
Once everyone has arrived at the party and placed their wrapped gift in a pile, it’s time to begin the game. Here’s how it goes:
That person, along with all subsequent players, should show off the gift so everyone else can see.
Alternatively, people may open a gift and then decide whether to swap it (however, this takes some of the “what’s behind Door Number 2?” mystery out of the proceedings). In most gift exchanges, there’s a mixture of useful, funny, delicious, and just plain useless gifts. It’s not unusual for highly coveted items to change hands over and over again.
In some variations, the person may decide to take someone else’s present (and that person can take someone else’s, and so on). In this case, there should be a rule limiting how much swapping can go on. For example, you could limit it to three swaps per round, or agree that no one can have their gift stolen more than once in a round. Without some limits on trading, things can drag on – particularly if there are a lot of people playing.
This only seems fair given that this person has been watching everyone else trade since the start of the game. However, this is optional and can be skipped, especially if you’re allowing multiple swaps per round.
After the players have all taken their turns, they may want to continue swapping gifts voluntarily. People who wound up with gender-inappropriate gifts or other useless items always appreciate the opportunity to get something of value (after everyone’s had their laughs).
Players may also enjoy mingling to talk about the gifts and reveal who gave what (if it wasn’t revealed during the game). It’s great to wrangle over presents, but the true purpose of the Yankee Swap is to get people together and have fun.