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Yankee Swap vs. White Elephant vs. Dirty Santa

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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.

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Animals
Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
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When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

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5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree
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What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.

1. CHIP IT.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].

2. CRAFT IT.


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If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.

3. STICK IT.

Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.

4. TREECYCLE IT.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.

5. DONATE IT.

After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.

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