Yankee: (adjective) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a northern native. Swap: (noun) an exchange or barter, typically involving bargaining. Used in a sentence: “Everyone had a wicked fun time at the Yankee swap over in Oquossoc the other night.”
For years, I was a relative newbie to the Yankee swap tradition. All I knew was it happened at Christmas parties and, even if I got invited but didn’t participate, it was OK to eat the food beforehand. I’d sit on the sidelines munching cookies while the game players picked and traded presents based on their previously allotted number hierarchy, their tolerance for risk, and their ability to abandon themselves in holiday frivolity.
Until recently, my Yankee swap exposure was limited to office party settings. I figured my coworkers were maximizing their company-sanctioned away from their desks time. We were too old for musical chairs and besides, with so many layoffs looming, playing that would have reminded us we were all in line to possibly lose our chairs permanently—a definite party downer. So we ate goodies and watched each other and our bosses enjoying an excuse to get goofy. If it was an especially good year, the top swapper might come away with a bottle of booze yanked away from a manager who, ultimately, had to be content with battery-operated nose hair clippers.
Karma came around for me one year when I finally decided to bring a gift (a nice bottle of homemade wine) and participate. I had the coveted bottle of Kahlua in front of me for all of about two minutes when my boss swooped in and left me with a giant tin of singing Christmas cookies! While giant tins of anything are regular Yankee swap fare, this one seemed destined especially for me. The minute I touched the lid, it blared Christmas carols so loud that everyone within an office cubicle square mile knew I was sneaking a cookie break. I left it in my bottom filing cabinet drawer when I got laid off that July, hoping whoever sat in my chair next would like cookies, too.
Fast forward to last week. When I got invited to the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen’s Association annual Yankee swap, I knew my bah humbug days were over and a new favorite tradition was in the making. The oldest and one of the largest sporting groups in Maine, these folks have been making Oquossoc the epicenter of all things outdoors since 1895. After joining this summer, it only took one meeting before Tom and I made it the highlight of our social calendar, too. An RRG & SA meeting, you see, is actually 90% enjoying good food and fellowship with nearly everyone in town, and 10% business. No Robert’s Rules of Order, boring agendas, or anything like that. Meetings convene with Bob, Harry, Karen and Marge and most of their neighbors sharing casseroles and telling stories. No matter what the season, everyone piles into the clubhouse smiling, and leaves filled with great food, good cheer and ideas on where the trout are holing up. Come Christmas, when no wildlife guest speaker is invited and after dinner business turns to Yankee swapping, it’s the most outdoor fun you can have indoors.
This year, about 30 good ole sports went fishing for the best gift to open and then hunting for the trophy swap. Up for grabs were two hats (one functional), six flashlights, work gloves, ice cleats, two suet holders, and the best wine to be found for under $5. A battery-operated bug zapper paddle/racket got bartered around the most, while a giant blue vase, a poinsettia pie plate, a jar of homemade maple syrup, and the one functional hat were also heavily traded.
Being not very high in the gift-picking number hierarchy, I ended up opening a “what the heck am I going to do with this” thing with no other better options in circulation yet. Based on critiques from the gallery and my own limited experience, I now know how to score what you’re left with at the end of a Yankee swap. Basically, your gift falls into these categories: 1) you can actually wear it, eat it or otherwise use it; 2) you can recycle it for some better use; or 3) at least you can rewrap it and won’t have to buy anything next year. Best previous swap I went home with was actually a combo of categories 1 and 2. After eating the contents of the giant tin of popcorn, it made a perfect dog food storage container. This year, however, my gift definitely ranked a 3. If I don’t get it out of the back of the Subaru by March, it’s going to be regifted to the recycling house at Rangeley Plantation dump.
But, like all Christmas festivities, my first Rangeley Yankee swap was all about the celebration and not really about the trinkets. Sitting among new friends in the clubhouse, I thought about all I had swapped to get there at this point in my life: A bigger home on a shorter road to a busier town—for my quiet corner on a big lake. Fewer restaurant dinners for five-star potluck once a month. Closer proximity of conventional writing opportunities for creative flow and the time to unleash it. My gym bag and endless loops on the elliptical machine for more time in winter boots off the beaten track. Best Yankee swap ever, for sure.