I was first introduced to the Yankee Swap at our family Christmas party, although I don’t remember exactly how long ago. I can’t remember a family Christmas party without a Yankee Swap, so it’s obviously been a tradition for a long time. Although everyone just called it the “Grab Bag,” which seemed appropriate for the rather rowdy gift exchange that it was.
My mom and dad always brought the practical gifts, things they wouldn’t mind taking home at the end of the swap: like a heavy duty flashlight with batteries, or a pair of Thinsulate gloves with an ice scraper. My Uncle George always brought a gag gift, like a giant container of laundry detergent. I distinctly remember one year he put in a whole row of scratch tickets- that caused a great deal of commotion and switching and grabbing. Everyone wanted to trade for those scratch tickets. When the swap ended, someone discovered the scratch tickets were only samples. There were a lot of exclamations and some “Damn it George!” phrases thrown in there. Especially from the person who had traded away the perfectly good bottle of Bailey’s for the bogus tickets.
I remember there was some tension surrounding the picking of the numbers. The higher the number you drew, the more chances to “trade” for something better that someone had already opened. I use the word “trade” very loosely here, there really was no choice involved. If someone wanted your gift, they were going to take it, no matter how badly you wanted it, no matter how pathetic you made your face look. There was no pity. There was no love. There were precious few allies, even among spouses. The only safe person was the relative who held number one. When my Gram was alive, she was always given number one, out of respect for her matriarch status. She used to chuckle watching her grown children and their spouses fight over Wal-Mart gift cards and bottles of wine while exchanging barbs and sidelong glances.
But God help you if you drew a 2 or a 3, because the chances of you keeping whatever you picked were pretty slim. You could opt to be devious, as several of my aunts and uncles have been known to do in the past, by “hiding” the gift under your chair or by your feet. But that would mean counting on the rest of my relatives to have a short memory as to what gifts had already been opened. In a large family where slights can be remembered as easily as birthdays, the odds were not in your favor.
I remember feeling so excited for the Yankee Swap each year- although none of the kids were allowed to participate. Sometimes we were even made to leave the room because some of the gifts people brought were deemed “inappropriate” for kids. Of course we tried to spy from the other room anyway, to get a glimpse of whatever it was that we weren’t supposed to see. We secretly looked forward to our parents giving each other crap and listening to them howl with laughter; that drew us in. I think I was in college before it was acceptable for me and my cousins to take part. It was like gaining membership to an exclusive club.
After my Gram passed, no one really held the matriarch torch, so it was pure chance whomever ended up with number one. As our family grew, brave cousins would bring significant others to the Christmas parties. And if that significant other was feeling particularly intrepid, he or she might take part in the Yankee Swap. (It is worth noting that many significant others in our family would spend several years observing Yankee Swaps before actually taking part in one.) And if that significant other was lucky enough to draw the best number, say number one, there would be more than a couple side-long glances with raised eyebrows (read: he’s not even in the family…and he got number 1!) No one would ever suggest that our poor guest give up number one, but he should be especially gracious about it (i.e. don’t take away the gift that aunt so-and-so is clutching to her breast).
The only real requirements for exchanging gifts in our family’s Yankee Swap were the price limit and a good sense of humor. It made no sense to play if you didn’t possess the latter. You’d be eaten alive.
While the gifts varied a bit from year to year, there were a few constants: the flashlight or headlamp with batteries, a set of gloves and a scarf, a set of screw drivers, an emergency kit for the car. My cousin Erin remembers a lint brush that made an appearance four years in a row. I think she still has it. And of course, there would be at least one large bottle of booze (usually Kahlua, Bailey’s or Seagram’s 7). That would invariably end up in the hands of a minor at some point. And then it would be given over to or confiscated by the parents, and so that poor unlucky cousin would be doubly shafted by the Yankee Swap and end up with no gift at all.
Every now and then someone would put in a gift card to Wal-Mart or Dunkin or somewhere equally useful and desirable. These were the gifts that people really “traded” for, and would sometimes end up changing hands about five times.
As cutthroat as those Yankee Swaps could get though, they brought us all together in the same room. We squished together on the couch, sat two and three to a chair, on each other’s laps, and crowded together on the floor. We laughed and traded sarcasms across the rug and we were kind of sad when the swap would come to an end.
Thanks Family, for the flashlights and memories.