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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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Yes, You Can Put Your Christmas Decorations Up Now—and Should, According to Psychologists
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We all know at least one of those people who's already placing an angel on top of his or her Christmas tree while everyone else on the block still has paper ghosts stuck to their windows and a rotting pumpkin on the stoop. Maybe it’s your neighbor; maybe it’s you. Jolliness aside, these early decorators tend to get a bad rap. For some people, the holidays provide more stress than splendor, so the sight of that first plastic reindeer on a neighbor's roof isn't exactly a welcome one.

But according to two psychoanalysts, these eager decorators aren’t eccentric—they’re simply happier. Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told UNILAD:

“Although there could be a number of symptomatic reasons why someone would want to obsessively put up decorations early, most commonly for nostalgic reasons either to relive the magic or to compensate for past neglect.

In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood.

Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extend the excitement!”

Amy Morin, another psychoanalyst, linked Christmas decorations with the pleasures of childhood, telling the site: “The holiday season stirs up a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia helps link people to their personal past and it helps people understand their identity. For many, putting up Christmas decorations early is a way for them to reconnect with their childhoods.”

She also explained that these nostalgic memories can help remind people of spending the holidays with loved ones who have since passed away. As Morin remarked, “Decorating early may help them feel more connected with that individual.”

And that neighbor of yours who has already been decorated since Halloween? Well, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, homes that have been warmly decorated for the holidays make the residents appear more “friendly and cohesive” compared to non-decorated homes when observed by strangers. Basically, a little wreath can go a long way.

So if you want to hang those stockings before you’ve digested your Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead. You might just find yourself happier for it.

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11 Posters Worth Gifting This Holiday Season
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A good poster can make all the difference when it comes to decor. Posters are a cost-effective and fun way to add color, tie together a room, and show off the owner’s personality. If you want to help a loved one track down a poster that doesn’t look like it’s straight out of a college dorm room, here are 11 prints we suggest gifting:

1. 100 ESSENTIAL FILMS SCRATCH-OFF CHART; $35


Pop Chart Lab

Pop Chart Lab’s scratch-off prints are a fun way to put a personal touch on a room. The Essential Films edition serves as a ready-made must-watch list, with 100 incredible films—new and old. As your loved one watches, they can scratch off the gray squares of the poster to reveal the illustrations below. Once they're done, they’ve got a checkerboard visualization of great movies from Casablanca to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

2. RETRO PATENTS; $33 AND UP

A framed patent of the Nintendo Game Boy sits against a wall.
Retro Patents

Gadget-lovers will swoon over these patent illustration posters, which feature the original patent drawings submitted for now-familiar technology like handheld cameras, record players, Tamagotchi, Game Boys, and more. The black-and-white drawings are accompanied by the name of the inventor and the date of the patent. Many of them are limited editions, so make sure to grab ‘em before they’re gone.

Find It: Retro Patents

3. DINOSAURIA; $37


Pop Chart Lab

Your favorite paleontology fan will love diving into this encyclopedic poster of dinosaur types, which catalogs more than 100 types of dinos in hand-drawn illustrations. Painstakingly researched, the work classifies 700 genera of prehistoric creatures into a taxonomy that’s sure to make your beloved science nerd’s heart beat faster.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

4. REALLY BIG COLORING POSTER; $40

Two children lay on a giant coloring-book-style map of America
Great2bColorful, Amazon

Coloring books make great gifts for all ages, but coloring posters make even better ones. This giant, 5-foot-by-3-foot poster will keep your favorite young artist busy for hours filling in notable icons of all 50 states, from the Hollywood sign to the Statue of Liberty. And once they’re done, they have a colorful mural to put up in their room.

Find It: Amazon

5. SPACE GRAND TOUR; $22

Eight vintage-style travel posters advertising space destinations
JPL/NASA

Get excited for the future. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed these out-of-this-world prints, creating futuristic tourism posters for celestial destinations that, for the most part, humans have yet to reach.They’re part science geekery, part vintage travel homage, and the poster versions are the perfect gift for any future astronaut. Of course, they’re so pretty that even the least physics-inclined people on your gift list will still appreciate them.

Find It: Amazon

6. BETWEEN THE WORDS; $63

A spiral of punctuation on a poster that reads ‘Moby Dick; Or, The Whale.’
Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux’s Between the Words posters are minimalist takes on visualizing classic literature. Instead of trying to encapsulate the story, he focuses on what’s between the words: the punctuation. Each poster depicts every punctuation mark—in order—used in well-known books like Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Separated only by chapter markers, the punctuation marks spiral around a central illustration. Sticklers for good grammar will love exploring the dense punctuation patterns of books like A Tale of Two Cities and Ulysses, designs that provide a whole new insight into the writing techniques of famous authors.

Find It: Zazzle

7. “I LOVE” CITY MAPS; $21 AND UP


Jordan Sondler

Help your favorite urbanite show their city pride with New York-based illustrator Jordan Sondler’s whimsical maps of places like Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Available in several different base colors, they divide major American metropolises into neighborhoods dotted with illustrated versions of iconic local architecture.

Find It: Minted

8. SKIES ABOVE CUSTOM STAR CHART; $130

A framed poster that reads 'Natalie and Morgan' with a star chart above in dark blue
Asterism Labs, Etsy

Baltimore-based data designer and former astrophysicist Katie Peek specializes in custom star charts that put a unique spin on a special day. They can highlight what the night sky looked like on the day of a wedding, a birthday, or during the last solar eclipse, customized to where the event took place. You can also ask her to commemorate the celestial view from any other time and place using her custom algorithms.

Find It: Etsy

9. PLEATINGS PRINT; $53

A graphic print shows gray shapes with lines running through them
Dry Studios

These abstract posters from the Stockholm-based Dry Studios are designed to create art using natural light in your house. The folded paper casts shadows when the sunlight hits them, turning the poster into changing graphic scenes throughout the day. They come in two different color schemes, one warm and one cold, to mimic the color change between day and night.

Find It: Dry Studios

10. LAW & MOORE MOVIE POSTERS; $12 AND UP

Three framed posters sitting on a table
Law & Moore, Etsy

The designers at Law & More specialize in pop culture posters that put a unique spin on beloved movies and TV shows from all genres, from Rocky to Stranger Things to Mary Poppins. Designed like vintage book covers, each features a minimalist illustration of the film along with the name of its creators. Whether you’re shopping for a James Bond aficionado or a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll be able to find a classy poster to show off their entertainment tastes.

Find It: Etsy

11. CONSTITUTIONS OF CLASSIC COCKTAILS; $37

A beige poster features a circular visualization of cocktail ingredients
Pop Chart Lab

Perfect for in the kitchen or near the bar cart, this infographic is a cheat sheet for becoming a mixology master. It illustrates how to throw together 60 different classic cocktails, organizing them by the type of liquor used to make them. Your favorite cocktail party host can use it to learn how to make a proper Rob Roy or Old Fashioned, or to help guests decide what they want to drink: just pick a base alcohol and go from there.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

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