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Greene: Yankee Swaps

A collection of wrapped holiday gift boxes with bows.
"A Yankee Swap can bring out the worst in people," writes VPR commentator Stephanie Greene.

A Yankee Swap can bring out the worst in people. Tact and generosity go out the window; bald greed and selfishness climb gleefully in.

For the uninitiated, the Yankee Swap, sometimes called Dirty Santa, is a gifting game where the participants choose gifts - not knowing who the gift is from - with the option of trading them for a gift they like better. Finally, the person who picked first gets to choose from all the gifts or keep what he or she has already received.

Some say the name Yankee Swap came from the civil war exchange of prisoners between the confederates and the union (or Yankee) armies. Another theory is that newcomers in early twentieth century New York observed Americans - that is, Yankees - exchanging silly gifts at the market.

At its best, giving a gift offers the opportunity to see a potential in someone that a gift will bring out: homemade bitters for the enthusiastic mixologist, a book on tracking for the hiker, a feather boa for the young fashionista. Feeding someone’s enthusiasm is a compliment. So I don’t quite understand the point of making a mockery of gift giving. But perhaps Yankee swaps are just a necessary antidote for people whose gift lists are too long – people who find the prospect of staggering around malls to find the perfect gift among the picked-over heaps of stuff to be life-draining dreariness itself.

To pretend such torment is uplifting smacks of too much Tiny Tim and not enough Tom Lehrer. But at least in this game the rules are clear – and there’s relief in the relaxation of pretense. No feigned gratitude, no one reciting that it’s the thought that counts. And since it’s hard to mask the greed the season can foster in even the purest heart, for once you can swap the ugly earmuffs for the cute little teacup - guilt free.

Of course the intention that the gifts will be funny opens a whole new can of worms, since one person’s desire is someone else’s punch line. But maybe the real point of the Yankee swap is to remember that, after all stuff is stuff.

And laugh it off.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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