Yankee Swap vs. White Elephant vs. Dirty Santa

iStock/recep-bg
iStock/recep-bg

One can rarely make it through the holidays without hearing about, or participating in, some kind of gift exchange. They're a great way to spread holiday cheer without breaking the bank.

There are many different types of gift exchanges, and a dizzying variety of rules. Here's a little primer on some of the most popular ones, in case Barb from Accounting asks you to join in the holiday gift-swapping fun.

White Elephant Gift Swap

How It Works: While there are many variations on the theme, the most common rules require at least 4-6 people. Each brings a small, wrapped gift, usually something useless you had lying around at home, or something tacky or jokey. All gifts are placed in a central area where all participants can see them. Then, everyone draws a number to decide the order in which they'll select gifts. The lucky individual who draws number one chooses the first gift and opens it. Number Two can choose either to open another gift, or steal Number One's gift. Number Three gets to open anew or steal from Two or One, and so forth. The game ends after the last gift is opened. The rules can be made more complicated—i.e. allowing more opportunities to steal gifts, or unlimited swapping.

The Origin: A “white elephant,” as the term is used these days, refers to a useless gift that usually ends up as a burden to the giftee. Popular theory says the term came from a story about an evil genius King of Siam, who had an almost comical way of exacting revenge on any courtier who dared displease him—he would present them with the gift of a rare albino elephant. Wow, great gift right? Not so much. Caring for one of those elephants was a huge and costly pain in the backside, and would likely lead them to financial ruin. As such, it was called a “fatal gift.” The story dates back to the 1850s, but no one has been able to verify that such a king existed. Nonetheless, the term persists in popular culture.

Yankee Swap

How It Works: It's very similar to the White Elephant swap, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Depending on the company you play with, it could devolve into this classic scene from The Office episode “Christmas Party":

One could argue there is a bit of a difference between a Yankee Swap and a White Elephant Swap. Based on is purported origin, the gifts one brings to a Yankee Swap should be more "useful" than those one would bring to a White Elephant swap.

The Origin: The name of this gift swap is most often associated with the prisoner swaps that took place during the Civil War. The term is more popular in, though not exclusive to, New England.

Dirty Santa

How It Works: It is very similar to White Elephant and Yankee Swap, though typically the rules encourage multiple rounds of stealing.

The Origin: It's called “dirty” because of all the stealing, of course, and is a popular gift swap particularly in Southern states.

Secret Santa/Kris Kringle

How It Works: As with any of these gift swaps, the “official” rules vary, but typically a group of about six participants or more draw each other's names out of a hat. Without revealing who drew whom, each must get their assigned giftee a present and give it to them “secretly.” It can happen in one round, or over several days. Once everyone has opened their gifts, they usually must guess who their Secret Santa was.

The Origin: This gift swap is considered one of the most popular gift exchanges in the western world. Its exact origins are murky, but clearly derive from a jolly, portly man who allegedly flies around the world giving gifts in late December.

Perhaps the most high-profile Secret Santa in modern times was philanthropist Larry Dean Stewart, who founded the Society of Secret Santas and handed out $100 bills to people on the streets of Kansas City anonymously for 26 years. In a digital twist, Reddit holds the Guinness world record for the largest Secret Santa swap ever, with over 85,000 participants.

Variation: A popular variation on the theme of Secret Santa is the Conspiracy Santa, wherein a group of people are tasked with “conspiring” to get a single person a gift.

Pollyanna Swap

How It Works: Just like a Secret Santa, but not exclusively relegated to Christmastime.

The Origin: Pollyannas are really only popular in the South Jersey/Philadelphia/Eastern Pennsylvania area. The namesake is thought to be related to themes derived from Eleanor H. Porter's novel of the same name, particularly the famous part where the lead character, Pollyanna, gets a pair of crutches instead of a doll for Christmas, and the “glad game” she teaches everyone that states there is no gift anyone should ever be displeased about receiving.

Cobweb Party

How It Works: This isn't so much a swap as it is a party game, but it does involve gift-giving, and is often suggested in lifestyle publications as a means of swapping gifts. The way it works is strings of yarn are attached to gifts and woven around a room and gift seekers must follow their yarn, "Entrapment Style," to their gifts.

The Origin: Cobweb parties or “socials” were apparently all the rage in Victorian England, where there was never a shortage of interesting and creative ways to give gifts.

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

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ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

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