Lots of people scale back on holiday excess by convincing their family to draw names or numbers in the gift-giving game. Others partake in that “life isn’t fair” ritual known as the Yankee Swap.

But be careful. These seemingly innocent little activities aren’t always so innocent, and sometimes they can backfire.

For years, I participated in a Yankee Swap with friends here in Maine, and mostly it was a hoot. This game is kind of like a holiday version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Everyone draws a number indicating the order in which you pick out and open a gift from under the tree. When it comes to your turn, you can either open a new gift or steal someone else’s. (If you steal someone’s gift, then they get to open a new one, which isn’t always a bad thing but can sometimes be a Monty Hall-style disaster. Cue the horns: Wah wah wah.)

The best number to get is No. 1 because, at the end of the game, if you received the equivalent of a donkey in a box, you can choose anything you want. The person whose gift you steal is left holding the donkey because there are no more gifts to open. Some people feel bad about this possibility and, in the spirit of the holiday, refuse to take advantage of their No. 1 ranking and steal. My friends usually pretended they were Vladimir Putin and enforced a scorched Earth policy – they took what they wanted without a shred of guilt, and sometimes even threw in a maniacal laugh for good measure.

Mostly, though, people in my gang were thoughtful about what they wrapped up. In Yankee Swap, the Golden Rule applies – pick out a gift you wouldn’t mind getting yourself. One year, however, a gift with an unusual shape appeared under the tree. When it was opened, the room went silent. If we were in a Christmas cartoon, the bubble over our heads would have said “Huh???!!” The just-opened gift was a long, plastic beige thingy that looked something like a shoehorn with a long handle.

Noting the puzzled looks on our faces, the guy who brought it informed us that it was a sweat scraper.

Oh, OK.

I had seen scrapers like this before, in barns. They’re used to scrape the sweat from horses that have worked up a lather. They’re also helpful when washing said horse because they work like big windshield wipers that move water quickly. Turns out this one was for humans who like to go into saunas.

Now, out of our whole group, only one family has a sauna and even they weren’t interested in keeping the sweat scraper. It got passed around like a hot potato.

A year passed, the sweat scraper was forgotten, until we were opening gifts once again and – boom – there it was. The person who had to take it home the previous year thought it would be funny to wrap it up again (this time well disguised) and put it into play. Everyone laughed, except for the person who received it as their gift. This went on for several years until someone quietly (sneakily) took it out of commission.

This whole incident inspired me to wrap up the ugliest set of lobster claw salt-and-pepper shakers I could find, put my sister’s name on them and set them under the tree during our family gift-giving. The look on her face when she opened them was priceless. She tried so hard to be polite and thanked me profusely, but the look on her face said “What the hell?” When I couldn’t hold back my laughter any longer, the jig was up.

Those lobster claws ended up getting passed around, too, and once again, after a few years someone finally took them out of commission and they just disappeared. We couldn’t remember who had received them last, and of course, no one would own up to it.

There are certain “types” to look out for at these Yankee Swap parties or during Secret Santa giving.

Some people don’t pay attention to spending limits. Then everyone gets to watch your face turn cranberry red while the person who gave you a crystal vase with your initials thoughtfully etched into it (at extra expense, of course) opens the $3.50 hot chocolate sampler you picked up at Target an hour before the party.

Other people use the opportunity to get rid of old crap from the back of their closet. A 16-year-old who likes skateboarding and video games can end up with a like-new foot bath from his 82-year-old great-grandmother. Somehow, it seems, the person who gives their own gift too little thought ends up with the best item under the tree.

I enjoy these rounds of gift giving because they present a challenge. I love it when someone gives me a spending limit and tells me to go out and shop. I like to hit sales and see how far I can make the money go. It’s a win in my eyes if I can find something beautiful that everyone will fight over, but I only spent $10.

These games make gift giving as much about the experience as the gift itself – a reminder that the real spirit of the holiday can be found in the fun times we spend together with friends and family and not just the next gotta-have item that an insatiable corporate America says you need to buy.