How To Run A Holiday Gift Swap (White Elephant, Yankee Swap)

Playing a gift swap instead of the traditional give-all-the-things can be daunting at first. Fortunately, this walks you through the process!

Playing a gift swap instead of the traditional give-all-the-things can be daunting at first. Fortunately, this walks you through the process!
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A gift exchange is a fantastic way to get into the holiday spirit and have some fun without breaking the bank. I tend to be a bit rule-centric, so for the past couple years I have been in charge of the office loot swap.

The general idea is that every participant (employee, family member, couple, etc. depending on the type of swap you’re running) brings one wrapped gift.  Over the course of the game, gifts are opened, stolen, passed around and otherwise change hands until everyone has a gift.  

The Basics

Before getting into the rules of playing the game, make sure that the following things are clear:

How much should the gifts be worth?

For our office swap, we set a maximum of $10 per gift (that often gets ignored), and for my extended family, we set a $25 maximum.  Setting this early gives people a chance to decide what they want to give without having that worry of over- or under-giving.

What gifts are/aren’t allowed?

In college, my fraternity ran a White Elephant gift exchange. As you can imagine, the gifts brought to that swap were slightly different from the ones I bring to my aunt’s house (who claims that “silly gifts take the fun out of it” for her), or the ones that I bring to the office.

Some groups prefer not to allow gift cards. Others request that gifts be homemade, or edible.  The specifics of what you would like as part of the exchange can vary, but make sure that everyone knows what sorts of gifts are encouraged and which should be left at home.

Who should bring a gift?

So that there is no confusion when the day arrives, make sure everyone knows who can/should participate.  If every person is expected to bring a gift for it, let them know.  If each couple should only bring one gift, make that clear.  That way no one has to scramble for last-minute gift ideas.  This is supposed to be fun, after all!

What do I need to get it all organized?

 You’ll need a few things to keep it all organized:

  • Small scraps of paper (tearing up a piece of printer paper works!)
  • A pen
  • A bowl, hat, or other container
  • Your gift (and others’ gifts when they bring them)
  • Enthusiasm (not required, but encouraged)

Once you have that and all the players have arrived, you can get things started!

The Rules

After the basics for what people should bring as gifts are set, the actual gift swap gameplay is fairly straightforward.  I’ve written this in a numbered list, so that it will be easy to print off and provide to everyone before the game starts.  While the game is done in good fun, making sure everyone has a copy of the rules keeps everyone in the loop.

Reading the rules aloud before the game begins is also strongly encouraged. 

  1. Set the pile of gifts where everyone can see them and get started!
  2. Write a number on a scrap of paper for every gift/participant in the game.  (So if there are ten gifts/players, write ‘1’ on one scrap of paper, ‘2’ on a second scrap, ‘3’ on the third one, all the way until you get to ten total scraps of paper.)
  3. Put the numbers in the bowl (or hat or other container) and mix them up, so people can’t see what the numbers are.
  4. Have each player draw a scrap of paper from the bowl.
  5. Once everyone has a number, the player with #1 on their scrap chooses a gift from the gift pile.  That player unwraps the gift and shows it to the group, complimenting the gift appropriately in the process.
  6. After Player 1 has shown off the gift, it is the next person’s turn.  
  7. Player 2 (the player with ‘2’ on their scrap of paper) has two options: they may steal Player #1’s gift, or they may choose and unwrap a gift from the pile.
  8. If a gift is chosen from the gift pile, then after Player 2 has shown off the gift, it is Player 3’s turn.  
  9. If a gift is stolen, Player 1 must open another gift from the pile.  It is now Player 3’s turn.   
  10. Player 3 then has the option to steal someone’s gift or open another gift from the pile.
  11. If the player opens a gift from the pile, it goes to Player 4’s turn.  
  12. If Player 3 steals a gift, though, then the person they stole the gift from has the option to steal a gift (if applicable; see ‘Final Notes’ below) or open a gift from the pile.
  13. When all players whose number has come up have a gift, the game continues.
  14. This continues until all players have an unwrapped gift.  Remember, all players whose number has come up must have a gift before the next number can go.
  15. After the last wrapped gift is opened and kept, Player 1 has one final turn.  He or she can decide to keep their gift or trade it for another eligible gift (one that has not been stolen three (3) times; see ‘Final Notes’ below).  After this choice, the game ends.

Everyone should have a present at the end of the game.  

Final Notes

There are a few final things to keep in mind when playing the game:

  • A gift cannot immediately be stolen back from a person who stole it.  If someone steals a gift from you, you have to pick something else.
  • A gift can only be stolen three (3) times.  After the third player steals a gift, they get to keep it and the gift is retired from play.
  • A person should not steal or choose the gift that they brought.  (This is a recommendation, not a requirement.)
  • All gifts that are still in play (not retired) must be in sight at all times.  No hiding gifts!
  • Remember that this is all in good fun!  If you received a gift that isn’t quite your style, be gracious and secretly hope that someone steals it from you.

About the author


I used to be the support manager for Gamer Launch/GameSkinny.