The first time was exciting and a little scary and made me uncharacteristically self-conscious. Comfortable college-era clothing was suddenly inadequate, and so too was my plain hair scrunchy, unpolished nails and silver jewelry. I was a guest at an orgy of straightened hair and high-pitched squeals of alcohol-induced laughter when all the values instilled in me by my parents and grandparents went out the window under peer pressure over a Kate Spade handbag, but that first Yankee Swap in a cold seaside suburb taught me valuable lessons about life and giving.

(Full disclosure: My identity is white, Christian, middle-class, heterosexual, married mother of two. If this personal story of sin and redemption offends you, I suggest you learn how to write and get your own job as a columnist.)

The rules of a Yankee Swap back then were the same as they are now: Bring a wrapped gift, put it under the tree and pick a number. On your turn, choose a gift, open it in front of the crowd and decide if you want to keep it or swap it for a gift opened previously by someone with a lower number. Simple, right? A wholesome girls’ night out?

Not exactly. A Yankee Swap in the suburbs is more like a pageant – or a gauntlet – often attended only by women who grew up attending Yankee Swaps in boiled wool with their mothers and grandmothers. There are unwritten rules, a social pecking order and important decisions to be made on the spot, in public. Yankee Swaps are fraught with angst and exhilaration. They bring out the best and the worst in people. Expectations are challenging to manage.

When she unwrapped it next to me, I did not understand the excitement and buzz over what appeared to be a simple zippered pouch, but my new coiffed and cheerful friend in gold jewelry whispered to me the significance of a Kate Spade bag, and I fell in love. This was no ordinary coin sack – its weight in social capital was very, very high.

Immediately, to my surprise, I coveted the Kate Spade bag and the life I thought it symbolized. I was ashamed of my own boring no-name purse and resentful of the peach Yankee Candle I had chosen as my swap gift (if only I had chosen the bag!), but the bigger moral dilemma came when my perky new friend hid the Kate Spade bag behind her back or under her thigh – I cannot recall the exact details due to my utter shock and confusion.

We laughed nervously together as co-conspirators as the game continued, and several glasses of wine later, Number 42 opened her hastily chosen gift and instantly declared she was trading it for the Kate Spade bag. I was stunned. As if she had been plotting the move all night, 42 began wandering around the sea of tissue paper, glittery sweaters and untouched cookies demanding aggressively to know the bag’s whereabouts. My initial instinct, of course, was to blurt out, “It’s over here! She’s got it!” but I was insecure, weak and confused. Loyalty to my pretty new friend – who appeared to be a Yankee Swap expert in her own right – blurred the lines, and I was intoxicated by the apparent affluence of the whole affair.

My impaired judgment got worse when voices were elevated and fingers pointed. Outrage and accusations of cheating came close to fisticuffs among a powdered crowd who by appearances could afford a different Kate Spade bag for every day of the week. My physical proximity to the hidden bag and knowledge of its location filled me with guilt, and the most basic Judeo-Christian values told me to come clean, but I lost my way and remained silent – until now.

Maybe, I thought then, different rules apply to people who know what a Kate Spade bag is, and besides, my new friend seemed nicer and more fun than that bossy Number 42. So she cheated and purloined a purse at a friend’s Christmas party. Nobody’s perfect, me included, and I regret that fateful night. My lust for material things was ugly and my being an accomplice to deceit disgusting. On top of that, I regifted the peach Yankee Candle at a subsequent Yankee Swap, but I have since changed and pray I am forgiven.

Now, decades later, with dozens of Yankee Swaps under my no-name belt, I am now competent and know the rules, and I am able to pass them along to my daughter. Bring a gift you hope somebody else will enjoy and wrap it in love. Leave your expectations at the door and remember who you are and from where you came. The rules for almost everything are simple and familiar and contain all the gold you need: Treat others as you would like others to treat you.

Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and former state senator. She can be contacted at:

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