Sunday, December 18, 2011

I don't like Yankee Swap/Chinese Auction/White Elephant gift games and I'll tell you why

At Christmas time, there is an old game at parties that adults play with gifts. Up north it's called a Yankee Swap, sometimes White Elephant, and in the south it's known as Chinese Auctions.

I was not familiar with these kinds of gift-giving games until two years ago, when I attended my Sunday School class's annual Christmas party and was told to 'bring a gift for under the tree.' After dinner, the game began. Here, Wikipedia describes it:

"At a Chinese auction, though not really an auction at all, each participant contributes wrapped prizes of roughly the same value to a pool of prizes. Participants draw numbers to see who gets to choose a prize from the pool of prizes first. The second person may choose their prize from the remaining prizes in the pool, or may take the prize from the first person who chose. The third may take a prize from the pool, or from the first or second person and so on until all participants have chosen. People choosing prizes are not required to open them, so the prize contents may remain unknown to all but the contributor until all participants have chosen."

This breaks the Tenth Commandment. The Tenth Commandment is found in Exodus 20:17: "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

I can hear people now, saying that I'm 'too picky', 'why not have a little innocent fun at Christmas', 'it's a harmless game', 'I take the bible way too seriously'...all those things. But I can't be too picky when it comes to direct commandments from God. Not only do I owe Him my allegiance because He is God, but because He saved me from eternal punishment, also. I owe him everything. So let's take a peek underneath all that harmless fun and look at the sin-festival that Chinese Auctions are.

My apprehensions about this game were solidified when I heard a good sermon last week on it. Phil Johnson at Grace Life pulpit expounded on the Tenth Commandment in a sermon called "Why covetousness is no small sin." (transcript here). It was perfect timing for me to understand what it really means to covet and what other sins grow out of that. ALL other sins grow out of that, as a matter of fact. What was the first sin? Eve coveted that which God said she should not have.

Regarding a Chinese auction we could say "You shall not covet the ornament on your neighbor's lap".

The Tenth Commandment "requires full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his." (Phil Johnson). Chinese auctions are the opposite of that.

Chinese auctions are a breeding ground for discontent. Coveting is a desire for something we are not supposed to have and in order to get it, we steal it. Now, not all coveting is evil. "There is a kind of covetousness that is not evil. It's when we covet that which God Himself esteems worthy of our desires. Desire in and of itself is not wrong; but make sure that you only desire for yourself what God desires for you."(Johnson).

Does God desire for us to steal our neighbor's goods from their very lap? Does He desire that we should look with covetousness eyes at $2 trinkets and breed discontent with what we have? Does He desire for us to allow a small root of bitterness that our neighbor took something from us?

We are born with desires, and because we are born sinful, our desires are evil. We can't tell ourselves NOT to have the desires that we have. We like what we like and we want what we want. Satan knows that. He tempted Jesus in Matthew 4. He had the brazenness to tempt Jesus to covet! Jesus resisted, "was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15). So Jesus understands that satan will tempt us, making mincemeat out of us, easily. He'll bring desires and coveting to our mind that we must resist. With the Holy Spirit, desires can be resisted. Therefore I don't want to put myself into a situation where it makes it harder for me to resist. It's hard enough already!

I attended an auction of this sort last week. The auction was excruciating because I'd heard part of the Phil Johnson sermon before I went and I knew that I was going to be sinning. But I didn't know what to do or how to get out of it without being rude to the people who were gathered there, who are fine, good people I love very much. It will take some prayer and forethought to determine what to do next year when these auctions come up again. But that is the nature of this sin, most of the time you don't even know you're coveting when you're doing it. And compared to murder, it seems like a small sin. But remember, it is the original one. Therefore coveting is no small sin, and one to be avoided.


  1. Hi Elizabeth - that is really profound. It reminds me of what I wrote about "no tattoos". Sometimes what we don't think of as a 'big deal', we forget that God knows the truth and the heart of a matter. I have played those games, and admit I thought nothing about "stealing" as it was part of the game. God forgive us for following trends instead of Him. Blessings, Tracy.

  2. I was watching an episode of The Office once and they did this very thing during the episode. Until that point I had never heard of it. At the end of the episode I thought there was something very wrong about that whole idea and couldn't believe people participated in that sort of activity, but I couldn't put my finger on it exactly. Elizabeth thank you for doing it for me. I am coming to understand that the Spirit will tell you that something isn't right, even when I can't identify exactly what it is. I hope you are able to able to get out of it without hurting anyone's feelings. Truth is truth, and you can always stand in that; just a thought:)

    Great post as usual,

  3. Just out of curiosity, do board games such as Monopoly also offend you? Where do you draw the line on playing games, since most games have some sort of competition in them which can lead to greed or coveting? Then there are the card games, too, which in my parent's generation were taboo. What are your thoughts on them?

  4. "White Elephant" games that I have played are rather different. You bring something strange - like a box of broken and used crayons, an old worn-out cowboy boot, 4 or 5 mittens that don't match, and so forth. The gifts are wrapped and then distributed in the same way that you mentioned above. The idea is to not get stuck with the "worst" gift there. It's halarious, partly because of what people come up with for 'white elephants' (I was at a party once where the white elephant was actually an ugly little figurine of a white elephant!). Some of the 'white elephants' are actually useful - like the time one woman wanted the box of old crayons for her kids to use. The recipient gladly gave them up. I didn't see much difference in playing this game from playing other games where you try to win, or at least not lose as badly as one of the other players. Winning and losing are the normal outcomes for any game played, be it golf, football, Scrabble, Uno, Old Maid, Slap Jack, hockey, pick-up sticks, jacks, Clue or Life. Any of these games can raise sin issues within a person - envy, anger, jealousy, coveting, revenge. How a person reacts to games such as these displays their level of emotional maturity AND spiritual maturity. I've always thought that playing games are a good way to help a child grow, both in emotional and spiritual maturity. In the game you wrote about, if nothing else, a person learns to loosely hold what they have and to give it up gladly for another (at least, that reaction is to be hoped for!).

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    I dislike the Chinese Auctions because the entire point is to 'shop' around to your neighbors and steal their gift if you don't like what you have received. The bible tells us to be content with what we have. (Hebrews 13:5). The tenth commandment tells us not to covet. We are told not to engage in activities where we allow bitterness to anger to spring up. (James 3:13-15) ("Hey!! She took my glow in the dark snowman!!)

    It is my opinion that Chinese auctions are directly violating the tenth commandment and therefore I choose not to engage in it. Others may have a different view. As for other games, I guess it depends on the intent of the game and the ability of people to handle the competition without getting angry or carrying a grudge, or being boastful if they win. Being generous and sportsmanship in games of all kinds is a good way to witness to the purity of a Christian life.

  6. I do get your drift, Elizabeth, and if that is where God is leading you on this, I support that! I tend to stay away from things that are so competitive that it causes me to get angry and flustered, and my ugly pride rears up. Similar thing.


  7. I don't think it's rude to opt out of Yankee Swap if you don't like it - I personally think it's rude to obligate someone to participate in something they don't agree with. When you wrote this entry, that was the first year my workplace voted to do Yankee Swap instead of Secret Santa - because it was easier to buy a generic gift instead of doing research on the assigned person you're buying a gift for. I opted out right away and haven't done it since. When people asked me why, I said that I considered it stressful, and that I preferred not to needlessly put myself in a stressful situation for Christmas. However, I did watch to be a part of the group, and made a dessert as a way to give to everyone. It's still somewhat painful to watch, but at least no one can say you were being anti-social or a Scrooge.

    I'm not a religious person, but I believe in the value of the commandments in how they guide us to make choices to be good to one another - rather than foster chaos, negativity and selfishness - so I definitely agree with your point. In one way I suppose Yankee Swap can be a method to detach yourself from material objects, as you can bet someone will take whatever you have away from you. But I get very upset by the idea that someone may happily take something that you clearly like (simply because the game gives them the right), and then you may wind up taking something from someone else as a result. I guess you can still take from the unclaimed gifts, but your scruples have already put you at a great disadvantage from everyone else in the game, and that doesn't exactly add to the Christmas spirit.

    There was one instance this past Christmas where the ugliness of this game really reared its head, after one worker deliberately traded with a another so that the tradee got something special that he would really like - that's the nice part. The awful part is that another worker saw how happy the tradee was and took the gift away from him as soon as it was his turn, and the guy looked so hurt by it. This person didn't even want it - he just wanted to distress the tradee because the game gave him the right. In the end, other people traded around to make sure that the tradee got the item back, which was a relief, but the Schadenfreude quality of some people really got exposed. Game or no game, you don't want to be known as that type of person. Now I know who to avoid if we have a food shortage.

    1. Wonderful comment. You gave me a lot to think about.

      I agree that the potential for stumbling blocks to good Christian behavior abound within the construct of the game. Covetousness, jealousy, greed, revenge,'s all there or has the potential to be there.

      I like your idea of bringing a dessert as a way to contribute to an evening where the game might be played. I might do that next time. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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