(This column first appeared in print December 19, 2006)
What I like best about Christmas, I have to say, is not the cheer, the joy, the vacuous look on shopper’s faces. Oh no. For me, the true merriment of the season is all about a cutthroat Yankee Swap.
Cutthroat how, you may ask. Good question. For a swap to be “Yankee” it must also be cutthroat. You might say ‘Pirate Swap’, but that would be just rude. Indeed, stalwart Yankees know that the best swaps turn even the most serene women and the most gentlemanly of fellows into capricious gift-stealing fools. The little niceties of life, politeness, consideration, have little place in a proper Yankee Swap. If you want to be nice, call it a California Swap, some left-coast feel-good swap is fine, just don’t call it Yankee.
With that introduction, let’s review the rules for proper swappage.
Most of you are familiar with the format. Each person brings a gift and places it in a central setting (under the tree, on a table, around the hot tub, etc). Each person then selects a number from a hat. The person with a 1 chooses a gift first. The person with number two can either take the first person’s gift or choose a new gift from under the tree.
Note, here lays the first distinction of a Yankee swap: the second swapper cannot open a new gift and then opt to trade it in. NOPE. Number 2 either takes from number one, thereby allowing number one to choose a new gift, or 2 picks a new gift, which he may or may not be happily stuck with. Any swap that allows number 2 to open a gift first, before deciding whether or not to swap, is a Mid-Western swap, known for its manners (which, again, have no place in a Yankee Swap).
The unwrapping/swapping/etc continues until the last person has chosen the last gift. THEN, number 1 gets the option to swap with anyone else. Number 1 gets the last say, any other way, frankly could be Un-American. Just so you know.
However, I have recently learned of two new swap methodologies that improve the richness of the experience.
Method 1: Mix up the numbers. So, number 1 doesn’t go first, he goes 5th maybe. Number 3 goes last, possibly. Just make two sets of numbers, one for guests to choose from and one for the host to use to determine order. Same rules apply though: the second and subsequent swappers can either take someone else’s gift or open a new one. Not both.
Method 2: This version is a little demented, and being where it is from Maine (where I grew up), naturally I’m partial. My friend’s grandmother has employed the TWO DECK method and frankly, its genius.
The host (in this case, my friend’s grandma) uses two decks of cards. One deck is for guests - each guest chooses an equal number of cards. For example, 52 cards divided by 15 players means each player gets three cards and the remaining 7 cards are removed from the other deck. Then the host uses the second deck to choose the cards (after the shuffle) one by one. Each person gets three chances to find a gift and steal it back. Thus, your swap lasts a little longer and people get a little nastier. What could make for a more perfect holiday get together?
Finally, I’d like to share a little tidbit to make the kiddies evenings bright on Christmas Eve, if the sugar rush hasn’t already glazed them over. If you have a computer and internet connection, make sure on Christmas Eve your family logs onto the NORAD Santa website.
For more than 50 years NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, has tracked Santa leaving the North Pole every Christmas Eve. You can watch his trek around the world through the combination of 47 high power radar installations over the North American border called the North Warning System, along with Santa Cams (cameras set up around the continent and only switched on Christmas Eve to track the jolly fellow), satellites and jet fighters. Best of all, it helps to know when Santa is getting near your neighborhood so that the kids can get into bed before he arrives. Check it out: www.noradsanta.org
May your Christmas be Merry and Bright and full of the joy and hope of the season!