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Gift Swap 101: How to Host a Flawless Holiday Gift Exchange

The Holidays are my second favorite time of year. Sorry Santa, but I have a special place in my heart for ghosts, pumpkins and hayrides. It’s a Fall thing, especially here in Connecticut where each season has purpose. 

However, the Holidays are a very close second. When December rolls in and the skies change color, the fireplace is a glow and my Uggs replace my flip flops, I am a happy girl. If you ask my children what the best part of the Holidays are, my girls will definitely say the presents. They aren’t wrong (even though that’s just one piece of the pie).

One of my favorite annual traditions is to host a gift swap. It’s a great way for you and your girlfriends to get together and celebrate this time of reflection before the New Year and have a little fun. 

Before we get started on the details, you should familiarize yourself with the rules and differences between the various types of swaps. You’ll probably disagree with my viewpoint, but that’s okay, it’s part of the tradition. 

Yankee Swap 

This kind of swap works best when playing with six people or more. Four people can work too, but the more the merrier! First the group should agree upon a spending limit, for example $20. Everyone then purchases something they would actually want because you sometimes end up with your own gift.

Remember to wrap the gift in a non conspicuous way so as not reveal what’s inside (don’t wrap a wine bottle tightly or it’s too obvious). I remember my first Yankee Swap when I was working in Boston. The entire table was filled with tissue paper wrapped wine bottles. It was pretty anti-climactic, but at least I knew what was a safe pick. 

When it’s time for the swap, everyone puts his or her wrapped gift on the center of the table. Each participant draws a number out of a hat. In this case, being last is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s all about strategy. The first person to pick is at the most disadvantage as they are the only ones picking blindly from a table of wrapped gifts. 

The first person picks a gift and unwraps it. Then the second person picks a gift and unwraps it. He or she has the option to keep the gift or “steal” from person one. The third person then picks a gift and unwraps it and has the choice of swapping with someone else. Everyone continues in this fashion until the last gift is revealed. 

There are two additional optional rules to consider. The first is that a gift can only change hands three times. The second is that the person who picks first is also allowed one final pick at the end. It’s all up to you!

White Elephant 

This game follows the same rules as the Yankee Swap. The only difference is that the actual gift should be a novelty item. The more kitsch the better! It might seem wasteful to purchase a present with no use, but it’s all in good fun. With this kind of swap it’s better to spend more time, rather than more money.

After doing some highly scientific online research, the concept of the White Elephant as a gift dates back to the legend of King Siam, who gifted people he didn’t care for with rare albino elephants. His goal was that those people would be “ruined” by the cost of upkeep. While the modern interpretation is quite different, the essence is still intact. 

Secret Santa

When my twins were smaller, my #momsqaud and I did a Secret Santa party every year. This is a super fun and easy way to get everyone together around the Holidays. I suggest using a Web site called to run the game. You enter everyone’s names and the app makes the assignments. You purchase one gift based on the other person’s wish list (also something that can be inputted into the computer) to be opened at the party. The wrapped gifts should have a gift tag with only the “to” portion filled out. The person opening the gift has to guess who it’s from.

When the presents are unwrapped, let the children make a DIY ornament like this melted crayon concept from Heathered Nest or less “adult involved” glitter ornament from The Vault Files (sub poms-poms for less mess). Don’t forget to also refer to our craftiest contributor for more ideas!

Image Source: The Vault Files & A Heathered Nest.

Image Source: The Vault Files & A Heathered Nest.

This type of exchange can get more interesting if you do smaller gifts that act as hints and draw it out over a few weeks. It could be really fun to do a neighborhood themed Secret Santa and deliver hint gifts via mailbox. Of course, everyone is busy this time of year and may not have time to dedicate. 

Setting the Scene

Once you’ve decided on a type of swap, all you need is some decor, food and beverages. There are so many ways to find inspiration these days, especially with Pinterest and Instagram. The best part is that so many of us in Fairfield County have access to free greenery. I’m not suggesting to take home clippings from the Audubon, but definitely look around the yard for interesting variations like boxwood and various pines and evergreen. Here are some examples I really love.

holiday gift exchange

Image Source: Jan Stanbrook & bell’alimento (via PopSugar)

A party wouldn’t be complete without some festive snacks and cocktails. Some of my favorite go-tos include a hefty meat and cheese platter with fruit, nuts and several kinds of crackers. There are so many tutorials online for building the perfect one yourself, but when in doubt, hit up the local experts for support! 

One of my favorite appetizers to make and eat are these cheesy spinach pinwheels. My best friend from college’s mother taught me how to make them and everyone always asks for the recipe. More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on a recipe from one of my closest mom friends. Michelle is a fabulous cook and not surprisingly was a personal chef in her former life. Her artichoke spinach dip is out of this world. It’s a staple at all of our parties and she is always kind enough to bring a big dish of it for everyone. 


Finally let’s not forget the beverages! For your guests who prefer not to indulge, pour some flavored seltzer and top with frozen cranberries as a garnish. Serve it in a champagne or wine glass to make it festive. If you’re with me, try one of these special cocktail ideas from Adrian Alvarado, Beverage Director Mixologist at Pearl at Longshore. 

"The Compo Toddy"

“The Compo Toddy” by Adrian Alvarado, Mixologist at Pearl at Longshore


“For a more festive cocktail, I like a bellini — they’re refreshing and classy,” Alvarado suggests. “You can use any fruit you like. I prefer Peach, strawberry and blackberry. They are very simple to make and batch,” which means less work for the hostess. 

Last but not least, don’t forget to send me an invitation!

What are your favorite holiday party tips, tricks and traditions?


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One Response to Gift Swap 101: How to Host a Flawless Holiday Gift Exchange

  1. Tiffanee Watts December 21, 2016 at 11:42 AM #

    We use our iphone to add some excitement and laughs to our holiday gift exchange. It’s so easy – no prep required. Each participant brings a gift and goes home with a gift. The gifts are traded, shuffled, and passed. You’ll never know what gift you will end up with until the very end. It can be found at

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