Few know the surprising origin of the Yankee Swap

yankee swap

If you are from Maine or any New England state for that matter then chances are pretty good that you’ve participated in a Yankee Swap during the holidays. But do you really know what a Yankee Swap is or where it came from? Be prepared to be amazed as I drop some historical facts on you.

Some history

The Yankee Swap has its origins in the Civil War when Yankee and Confederate generals would participate in a prisoner swap. These swaps were based on gentleman’s agreements and were never formalized through contracts because of the Union was not exactly thrilled about the concept of giving any legitimacy to a Confederate government. For reasons not exactly clear, the generals made something of a game out of the prisoner swap and assigned a value to the rank of each prisoner; one private was the same value as another private but two privates together were worth one sergeant or corporal, and three private were worth a lieutenant. But the biggest prize was 60 privates for one general.

Because some of the prisoner camps were so notorious for being overcrowded and prisoners dying of disease, exposure, and even starvation, the generals used this method to clean out their camps and shift resources around. The gentlemen’s agreement got ugly toward 1865 and the practice was halted.

How to play a Yankee Swap

A Yankee Swap is pretty simple. You need at least four people to participate, but the more the better. Each player is tasked with purchasing a gift with a specific budget in mind. Some folks opt for $5 and others opt for as high as $20, but the point is to keep it as cheap as possible. Make sure the gift is wrapped then place it under the tree. Once everyone is together, one person takes a hat and tosses in scrap pieces of paper that each has a number corresponding to the number of players. The hat gets passed around and everyone takes out a number. Starting with the number one, the first player (number one) chooses a gift, unwraps it, and shows it to the other players. The next player (number two) can choose to steal that gift or open a new one. If the second player steals a gift then the first player may open a new gift. The gifts are opened and shown to the other players. Player three can choose to steal a gift from anyone who has chosen a gift or opt to choose an unwrapped gift. This goes on until all the gifts are opened.

Is this the same as a game of White Elephant?

No! The Yankee Swap gifts are intended to be as useful as possible. The more useful and desirable the gift then the more fun you have stealing gifts. Also, the idea of being thrifty and useful is a mainstay virtue that is quintessential New England.

The White Elephant game is played exactly like the Yankee Swap, but the gifts are intended to be burdensome, annoying, or super duper campy. Think fruitcake or a tacky coffee mug. The Elephant game has historical roots in

The Elephant game has historical roots in stories about the King of Siam, who was apparently kind of a jerk when it came to gift giving. If he didn’t like you, then he would gift you a rare albino elephant knowing that it would be a huge pain in the derriere to take care of and would likely financially ruin you. Who wants an extravagant gift that you can’t take care of or get rid of?

Popular gifts for a Yankee Swap

Have you been invited to participate in a Yankee Swap? here is a quick list of gifts that you can find for under $10 that any Mainer would love.

  1. Wool socks
  2. Coffee gift card
  3. Hand warmers
  4. Walkway salt
  5. Emergency car kit stuff like cat litter, batteries, flashlight, jumper cables, or flairs
  6. Long underwear
  7. Crampons
  8. Compass
  9. Atlas
  10. Box of wine

And there you have it! Some interesting facts, game rules, and gift ideas for your next Yankee Swap.

Happy holidays!