“A Yankee Swap is like Machiavelli meets Christmas.”

I wish I’d coined this phrase myself, but alas it was uttered by everyone’s favorite cubicle philosopher, Dwight K. Schrute on “The Office,” during a Dunder Mifflin holiday party. The main event of the party was a Secret Santa gift exchange in which each person brought in a gift for another person in the office. Then, halfway through the party, Michael Scott decides to convert the Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap. Suddenly, nobody has to make do with the gift intended for him or her. Everyone can vie for any present in the pile.

In short, all hell breaks out, as the characters brawl over the iPod Michael bought in blatant violation of the $20 spending limit. The party is ruined; all good cheer evaporates. Desperate to salvage the celebration, Michael dashes out for a case of vodka and everyone is happy for a while until they pass out.

Yes, this is extreme. But I guarantee that during this holiday season various versions of this debacle will play out in office parks, senior citizen residences and private homes over Baltimore and the world. Because, as Dwight says, “A Yankee Swap is like Machiavelli meets Christmas.” Or, as I say, “A Yankee Swap is like ‘Animal Planet’ but with humans instead of lions, and a 12-cup food processor getting attacked instead of a baby wildebeest.”

For those of you who’ve made it to adulthood without attending a Yankee Swap, God bless you, and here’s a quick summary of the rules. On the appointed day, each person brings in a wrapped gift and deposits it with the other gifts, all of which bear no marking to indicate what they are or who gave them. Then, everyone picks a number out of a hat, and the person with No. 1 selects a gift from the pile. He unwraps it and claps his hands in delight— it’s a bamboo back-scratcher!— or groans in dismay— it’s the rubber stopper that fits on the end of a crutch (true story). There’s no time to dwell because next up is No. 2, and she has options: she can select a gift from the pile or “steal” the gift from No. 1. If she steals No. 1’s gift, he goes back to the pile and chooses again. At each successive round the player faces a metaphorical fork in the road: take the worn path and steal a Magic 8-ball, a scented candle, a CD of John Denver’s greatest hits (all actual Yankee Swap gifts), or take the road less traveled and pick from the pile.

As the game proceeds, one thing occurs almost immediately: the birth of the “it” gift, the one item that everyone covets and thus gets stolen again and again. Depending on the type of folks involved in the swap, the “it” gift may be a viking hat complete with horns and hair, a DVD of “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition, a bottle of Old Spice or a set of kitchen towels (all actual Yankee Swap items).

But one thing holds constant: given the choice of stealing the “it” gift or going to the pile, people most often steal. Perhaps because stealing is so taboo in regular life it’s tempting to indulge in it. Or perhaps we are all just sick and tired of being nice and charitable and sharing, sharing, sharing. Whatever the case, fleeting is the joy of the Yankee Swapper who gets her grubby hands on “it”— with every new turn, she risks loss and disappointment. There are no friends in Yankee Swap; there are only people with the gift that ought to be yours.

As my mother, a veteran of many such gift exchanges, says, “If your number is in the middle and you get a nice gift, someone will take it from you.” (Some Yankee Swap organizers put a limit on the number of times a gift can be stolen, but that seems to spoil the… er… fun.) So one would think people would come to a Yankee Swap knowing not to get attached to, say, a lacy lingerie outfit that has no tags (ewwww, used!), as a woman at one office party did (true story). But when it was stolen by a male co-worker, she nearly cried. At another Yankee Swap, a mother gleefully opened an Elmo doll declaring, “This is perfect for my kids.” A few rounds later, when it was stolen by someone who said she wanted it for her niece, dirty looks ensued. You could almost hear the mother saying, “I’m a mother. You’re just an aunt. Back the hell off my Elmo doll.” Indeed, observe a Yankee Swap for any amount of time and you will witness heartache, disappointment, anger and, yes, grief. You will witness grown people acting like children. One desperate woman refused to loosen her hold on a Jesus tote bag even as it was pried from her hands. Her eyes said, “Mine!”

Several years ago at a holiday office party at a company that publishes the premier lifestyle publication in its mid-size mid-Atlantic city, the “it” gift was a life-size chocolate leg. All seemed right with the world when the gal who bakes cookies, cakes and brownies for the entire office staff several times a week took possession of the leg. She would make baked goods with it; all would benefit. But then someone stole it from her! Someone who doesn’t even bake… someone who was just interested in the life-size chocolate leg for its novelty. It would be as if Tiny Tim were happily stroking the new prosthetic leg he was lucky enough to open, the one that would allow him finally to run free instead of just limping along… and then his office mate steals it from him, saying, “This will make the perfect plant stand!”

Had the baker been more strategic, she might have done what others have done— and will continue to do— in swaps all over this land: hide the gift. One woman (who, like many interviewed for this article, didn’t want her name used) was at a swap in which someone scored a bottle of mediocre wine early in the game and hid it under his chair, hoping no one would see it and thus steal it. (His strategy backfired; another man took it from him mostly because he’d tried to hide it.) At a holiday party for a group of office workers held in a restaurant, some people hid their gifts under the table to avoid them being pilfered. But the boldest strategy is one witnessed at yet another holiday party held at the offices of a company that publishes the premier lifestyle publication in its mid-size mid-Atlantic city: when someone got a gift she liked, she ducked out of the party with it and went home— even though the game wasn’t over!

The baker practiced none of this trickery to protect her chocolate leg. But the leg-stealer got his comeuppance. He was so shamed after the party that he carried the leg over to the baker’s cubicle and laid it to rest on her desk. “I cut off the kneecap and thigh and gave it to him,” she says. “And I used the rest in brownies.”

As common in Yankee Swaps as disappointment and deceit is disgust, which occurs when some members of the swap bring or buy gifts that they think are actually worthwhile, and get angry when they end up with other people’s junk. This reveals an underlying conflict concerning the nature of the Yankee Swap: Some people see it as an opportunity to unload the crap they’ve accumulated through the ages, while others see it as a legitimate gift exchange. (The labeling varies from region to region and group to group, but it appears that “gift swaps” and “present exchanges” often feature a preponderance of legitimate goods while Yankee Swaps, White Elephant exchanges and Chinese auctions are a bit dodgier.)

Nina Knoche, director of project management at Broadridge Financial Solutions in Owings Mills, is a proud member of the “crap swap” group: she has a “re-gifting” closet in which she stows ugly, awful and variously undesirable items to unload on her staff during her office’s yearly holiday party. “The first year I had this heinous metallic sled that I brought to the swap. It got passed around and came back the next year,” she says. “The next year I’d been given a set of snowball candles by a friend. She had lit one and blown it out a second later. I thought, ‘I’m going to re-gift these.’ I got ridiculed because they’d been used. They also came back the next year.”

After a few years, Knoche’s staff said to her, “You can’t re-gift. You have to bring something new. Your stuff totally sucks.” The sled and the snowball candles— along with a much-maligned spice set that someone else brought in— now sit atop the team’s cubicles, out of commission for future Yankee Swaps.

But, even after being issued the ultimatum, Knoche stands by her strategy. “It’s better to come with a piece of crap because even if you come back with something mediocre you’ve done well,” she says. (One time she got a standing wine bottle opener that she loves.) “I’m getting rid of stuff I don’t want. I’m making no guarantees anyone else wants it.”

This year, Knoche’s house is being remodeled and many of her possessions, including those in her re-gifting closet, are in storage. Not to worry, though. She’s going to ask her dad to give her something he doesn’t want, and she’ll wrap that up.

After many years of being a participant-observer at Yankee Swaps, I’ve developed several theories about the phenomenon. The first is that Yankee Swaps cause many otherwise sane people to go a bit batty. When you give a gift under normal circumstances, you show thought and care because the gift is a token from you to someone you care for— it’s personal and intimate. A Yankee Swap does not encourage that kind of considerate thinking because you have no idea who will end up with your gift— it could be someone you like or someone you don’t. Instead, it invites calculated strategizing along the lines of, “I bought a nice set of lavender soaps so I better get something comparable in return,” or “I brought in an old dog collar, and I at least want something better than that.” Without the human emotions attached to gift-giving, the act is reduced to pure mercantile exchange, a caricature of itself. This is why greed, pouting and all manner of misbehaviors are so often in evidence during Yankee Swaps.

Is the answer, then, to dispense with the whole gnarly tradition once and for all? I don’t think so. Instead, we need a radical rethinking in which Yankee Swaps would be viewed as opportunities for good theater, not good gifts. The best Yankee Swaps would feature a random collection of strange items that aren’t purely junk— i.e., the stopper from the end of a crutch— but aren’t things you’d normally give as gifts. The goal would be not to get a set of dish towels or a bottle of wine, but to get a good laugh.

A shining example of this model is the New Year’s Eve Yankee Swap that Catonsville residents Mary and Joe Lochary have attended at a friend’s house for 15 years. “The premise is you can’t buy your gift. It has to be one you’ve received,” says Mary, an administrative assistant at the College of Notre Dame. Over the years, the Locharys have witnessed a bejeweled dusting mitt, a set of tapes called “learning Swedish in Two Days,” a tape of Charles and Di’s wedding on Betamax, a pair of Coca-Cola tube socks and a fiber-optic singing poinsettia change hands. (The last two items they brought themselves.)

A similar genre of items finds its way to the yearly Yankee Swap held by the Baltimore Improv Group (BIG), which usually occurs in January. Every year I’ve attended, I’ve had the pleasure of watching people alternately employ the used-car-salesman hard sell— “Look at this lovely unicorn hat that makes music when you move your head” or “With this 6-gallon can of tuna, you know you won’t go hungry during the Apocalypse”— and reverse psychology— “I love this textbook about insurance law. I don’t want anyone to steal it from me.” Shakespeare couldn’t script this stuff— and it’s mine to enjoy for the cost of a contraption used to cut your seatbelt and break the glass in a window if you get trapped in your car underwater. (My father-in-law, God bless him, gave both my husband and me one for Christmas— and we figured we needed only one.)

One of BIG’s longtime members, Heather Moyer, loves the wonderful warm feeling that fills her heart when her offering becomes the “it” gift. Over the years, she’s brought to the swap “a scarily realistic monkey head puppet; an 18-inch sitting baby elephant statue; one of those backlit moving picture things of an ocean scene, clearly from the ’70s or ’80s, as it was bulky plastic and very gaudy; and a dancing iguana figure.” In return, she’s received “a crappy Eagles CD; Transformers stickers; a plastic banana carrying case (seriously, I use this a lot because it’s perfect for a long commute!); and glow-in-the-dark Halloween underwear.”

I was the recipient of Moyer’s baby elephant statue and the dancing lizard figure, both of which occupy places of honor in my toddler’s room. The other day I pulled the lizard out and pretended to attack my daughter with it. She was unimpressed. Then I pressed a button on its tiny rubbery hand and waited to hear, “Take me to the river,” the song it’s supposed to play. Alas, the batteries were failing, so there was no singing— only moaning, as if the poor lizard were caught in a trap. For two long minutes before the batteries died completely, the lizard moaned and moaned and moaned. As I sat there listening to it, I thought, “I know, lizard. That’s the way I feel about Yankee Swaps, too.”

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