My First Christmas in America: Why Did My Host Ask for a Gift at His Own Christmas Party?

by Sunny Peng - Posts (5). Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“I just got an invitation from one of my anthropology professors for a Christmas Eve dinner at his house. Would you like to go with me?” I asked my Chinese roommate while she was struggling with some high-level econometric problems. She immediately lifted her head up, “Nice! I’d love to!”

Wrapped gifts

Why did my host ask us to bring him gifts? Read on to find out!

“Wait a second. This is funny,” said I, as she was about to go back to numbers and equations, “The professor asked me to bring a dish and a gift to the dinner. I can understand about bringing a dish. But how could someone invite you to his house while asking you explicitly to bring a gift?”

I found out eventually what the gift was for, but first I spent a lot of time getting excited about this Christmas Eve dinner, even when I was studying for my finals. I had traveled home to China during last winter break, so this year’s Christmas would be another of my “first times” in the U.S. Besides, as an anthropology major interested in America, being able to celebrate Christmas in the U.S. with Americans fascinated me.

My roommate and I got up very early on December 24th, Christmas Eve, to start worrying about the food we would bring to the dinner. We had no idea how to cook American food, and almost everything in our fridge was from an Asian market in town. “You know what? We can just make Chinese food. It would not look that weird. He is an anthropology professor, so he would probably be very interested in what we cook.” I said to my roommate.

My professor knocked on our door to pick us up at 5:50 pm. We said “Merry Christmas” to each other as my roommate and I came to his car, carrying a high-pressured cooker with Chinese pork rib soup inside. Of course we had our wrapped gifts in tow as well. “I am curious how Americans will react to a Chinese soup at a Christmas Eve dinner, and how they are going to eat the ribs in the soup,” my roommate whispered to me in the car.

Before dinner started, I spent some time mingling with other guests there as well as touring around the first floor of my professor’s house. As instructed by my professor’s wife, we had all placed our gifts on a table when we came in, and there they sat, keeping us in suspense as to their purpose. It did not take long for the table to be crowded with nicely wrapped gifts, and my heart to be filled with jealousy while looking at them. “My professor’s family has got a lot in return for this Christmas feast.” I said to myself.

Some of the guests were faculty members, and others were neighbors who do not work in the university. Many were dressed in the Christmas colors that I had learned about, red and green. His living room was decorated with a Christmas tree with little ornaments hung on it, and there were lights surrounding all the windows.

Dinner started with my professor’s brief “significant words.” He thanked everyone present, and introduced each to the rest. When he was introducing me, my professor emphasized the special and authentic Chinese soup we had made, which was waiting on the table with the other American foods, like mashed potatoes and turkey. I realized, after dinner started, that our Chinese soup was quite popular. My roommate and I couldn’t help but feel a bit proud of our contribution.

The wrapped presents were still on the table, but it didn’t take long after dinner until we finally learned why my professor had made this odd request of his guests. Before we got to desserts, my professor and his wife introduced us to a Christmas Eve tradition for their family, a game called a “Yankee Swap.”

Everybody drew a small piece of paper with a number on it from a basket, and in order of their numbers, went to the gift table to pick and open one of the gifts. The catch was that the people with higher numbers could force those who had already chosen to swap gifts, if they preferred that person’s gift to the one they had picked.

With my professor and my gift!

With my professor and my gift!

“It’s all about capitalism and being greedy,” said one regular guest in explanation of the name Yankee Swap, “which is how we southerners make fun of northerners.” Some of the gifts that were unwrapped were quite peculiar; someone had given a pair of fake teeth as their gift. Luckily, my roommate and I ended up with a beautiful plate and a coffee mug.

After we relished the cute and yummy desserts some guests had brought, my roommate and I were given a ride back home. We finished our night by watching a very classy Christmas movie, White Christmas, and wishing for a beautiful snow in Charlottesville on Christmas Day. And guess what? We got our wish!

2 Responses to “My First Christmas in America: Why Did My Host Ask for a Gift at His Own Christmas Party?”

  1. Mike says:

    We refer to this in our area (pacific Northwest) as a white elephant gift exchange. I am not sure why it is called a white elephant gift. The nature of the gifts are supposed to be silly in nature. It is a ‘gift exchange’ with entertainment and laughter as the real gift. That is why one of the ‘gifts’ was fake teeth most likely.

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Awesomely, Wikipedia has an explanation of where the term “white elephant” to mean a joke gift comes from:


      The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered to be without use or value.
      - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Elephant

      Who knew? Sadly, I can’t find an explanation for the term Yankee Swap and I have no idea if what Sunny was told is actually where it comes from.

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