Yankee Swap Rules And Gameplay

As with any gift exchange amongst a large group of people, there are some basic rules that apply to all gift exchanges, even if you are not doing this at Christmas time. The Yankee Swap Gift Exchange ensures that everyone can arrive with only one gift and every guest leaves with a gift of the same value, with lots of fun in between!

The first order of business in organizing a Yankee Swap is to determine the framework within which all guests will participate. Whether this is your extended family or your colleagues at work, a fun gathering with your teammates or community group, it is best to start with these initial decisions:

Getting Started

Determine the date, place and time of your Yankee Swap Gift Exchange. This game requires that all participants be in the same place at the same time, and it will take up to an hour to complete this game depending of course, on the number of guests who will attend.

As mentioned earlier, this gift exchange works well with 20 or so participants, but can work well with as few as 6. Just keep in mind that the fewer guests you have, the quicker the game will be over. In contrast, if you have more than 20 guests, the gift exchange may go on too long and the fun may be lost due to the length of the game.

Your Yankee Swap Gift Exchange will need to occur in a space that has a lot of room for everyone to sit in a circle around the pile of wrapped gifts situated in the centre of the circle. As the game progresses, people will need to move around to swap gifts quickly and with energy, so it's best to have an open space not cluttered with food or decor. Once you've sent out your invitations, ask for an RSVP so you can know how many people to expect.


As the organizer, your guests will appreciate being given a theme and price range for their gifts. Most Yankee Swaps stay within the $10-20 range, but keep in mind what you think your group can afford. You do not want cheap or junky gifts because that will discourage swapping. So your theme and price range should be affordable to your group and also enable guests to purchase something of value to the other guests. The more that a gift is attractive to other guests, the more that swapping will happen.

Your theme should appeal to your group and does not have to be Christmas-related unless you think this will work best. In our next article, we provide some themes and gift ideas that you might want to consider.

There is sometimes controversy as to whether re-gifting suits a Yankee Swap Gift Exchange. Re-gifting means guests bring something from their home that is either new or lightly used. Sometimes this can work really, really well! But often, if one person can't use an item, the likelihood is that other members of your gift exchange won't be able to use it either and so a re-gifting theme might defeat the purpose of swapping. Remember the goal is to encourage swapping, so any theme, price range, gift selecting and wrapping should all encourage participants to swap their gift for another one they want more.

Gag gifts, or funny gifts, may not work well either for the Yankee Swap Gift Exchange, only because the goal is to encourage as much swapping as possible, and gag gifts really may not be wanted by anyone.

Ask your guests to wrap their gift(s) well, disguising the contents as much as possible. Do not place any name tags on the gift(s). Guests could write a poem or riddle as their tag if you like, which can help (or not!) guests decide to choose that wrapped gift from the pile.

As You Gather Your Guests

You've sent out your invitations which include the date, time and location of the party. You have also included the gift theme and price range in your invitation. Ask for RSVPs in you invitation so you know how many people to expect.

Set up a space for the gift exchange to occur. Guests can sit on the floor, on cushions or in chairs, whatever you think will be best for your group in terms of swapping gifts. Have a low table in the middle of the circle where all the wrapped gifts will be piled.

As guests arrive, have you or someone else place their gift on the table, and hand your guest a piece of paper with a number on it. Keep track of these names and numbers in case your guest loses their piece of paper. These numbers determine which order the gift choosing will begin.

Once all the guests are seated around the wrapped gift pile, with their numbers in their hand, remind guests that there is no touching, shaking or sniffing of gifts before they choose. Once they touch a gift in the pile, that is the one they must open.

Each guest will be given 30 seconds to choose a gift. This keeps the game moving.

Once you are in possession of an unwrapped gift, you cannot hide it, but keep it out in the open for all other guests to see.

How to Begin

Player #1 selects a gift from the pile and unwraps it. Guest #2 selects a gift from the pile and unwraps it. Guest #2 has the choice to keep it or swap it for Guest #1's gift. That turn is now over. Guest #3 chooses a gift from the pile and unwraps it. Guest #3 has the choice to swap this gift with Guest #1 or #2, and so on until all guests have gifts. At the end, Guest #1 has one last choice to make - they can swap with anyone or keep the gift they have.

Ideas to Encourage Swapping

As the host(ess), it is up to you to encourage as much swapping as possible! Here are two ways to encourage more:

Every now and again throughout the game, the host(ess) yells "Yankee Swap!" and everyone who has an opened gift in their lap MUST swap with someone.

Another great way to encourage swapping is to prepare ahead of time, a list of statements that you will read out. Anyone who the statement applies to must stand up. Everyone standing MUST swap gifts! Set a time limit depending on the number of people who stand up, ie 30 seconds to 1 minute. Here are some sample statements you could use directly, or use as inspiration to create some statements that are most applicable to your group:

  • I went to college
  • I love pizza
  • I have blue eyes
  • I own a bicycle
  • I am the youngest in my family
  • I have gone fishing
  • I hate my job! (make sure your boss is not in attendance!)

In following this outline and some of the rules, your guests should have a great time with The Yankee Swap Gift Exchange, no matter the time of year!