December 28, 2017     Joe Becker

Yankee Swap vs. White Elephant


Yankee Swap and White Elephant: two similar gift-giving events that are commonplace amongst offices, holiday parties, and family gatherings across the U.S. Recently, alongside a wine auction followed by a dinner, Encore Tours had its own Yankee Swap! But what is the difference? Where do they come from? Stay tuned to find out!

The gift I got for our Yankee Swap was a set of vintage salt and pepper shakers. Other items people brought were wine, tea, Texas barbecue sauce and pralines, books, Russian dolls, and much more! The criterion for each gift was “something fun but not something totally useless.” This description is a good place to start for the difference between Yankee Swap and White Elephant.

Here we are, your friends at Encore Tours, preparing for our Yankee Swap and wine auction, in which teams of two tried to figure out which masked wine bottles were the most expensive.

The point of White Elephant is to buy something ridiculous, whereas Yankee Swap is essentially the same gift-exchange process but with more useful gifts. Everyone brings in something and each person draws a number. The first person gets to pick the first wrapped gift and the second person gets to pick the second wrapped gift. However, the second person has an opportunity to steal the first person’s gift and so on. To be the first person is enviable – or, for some, stressful – because you get to be the last one to steal a gift, knowledgeable of what every gift is. Some play White Elephant by having the choice to steal or to choose a new gift – but you cannot, in this instance, choose a gift and then steal one.

James, Director of Encore Tours, opening his Yankee Swap gift, which turned out to be an Encore game! He wouldn’t dare give this gift up.

The origin of White Elephant is centered around the idea that an elephant would be a burdensome gift to its receiver, which the King of Siam allegedly did. If you did him wrong, he’d generously buy you a white elephant! Was it really generous? Nope – it was a devilish way to get back at you, as you would then have an elephant to care for. How sweet and holiday-appropriate!

Yankee Swap is more popular in New England and is a reference to the swapping of prisoners of war during the American Civil War. Some claim that generals made a game out of these swaps, and they even assigned different values to each prisoner, kind of like a brute barter system. A more heart-warming origin claim is that Americans – once called “Yankees” by immigrants in New York City – would give each other trivial gifts in marketplaces. It was, quite literally, “Yankees Swapping gifts.” Today, Yankee Swap is practiced across the globe – reaching far beyond the Big Apple.

Though these sometimes-crude gift-giving origin stories are disputed, what really matters is the holiday spirit embodied while playing them! Overall, the Yankee Swap we had at our office was tons of fun, and though we stole each other’s gifts, we shared our laughs and smiles. The King of Siam definitely didn’t have as much holiday cheer at his holiday party as we did at our own.

Frieda and Ward taking a selfie as team “Tower of Terroir”!

Happy holidays from all of us at Encore Tours and cheers to the laughs and smiles you will share this holiday season with your friends and family!

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