03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fun At Work: The Holiday Gift Exchange

Exchanging holiday gifts in the office is one activity that can bring as much angst as joy to both gift-giver and receiver. How do you insure that everyone gets a gift of equal value? You can always set a price limit of $15. How do you insure that everyone gets a gift? You could put all the gifts in a grab-bag, and let people pull out their gifts randomly. Or you could have everyone put their name in a hat in advance, and each giver would pick the name of the person for whom they should buy a gift.

But these rules and regulations lack a certain drama, a certain excitement, a certain. . . chance to play like you did when you were a child. The holiday gift exchange that has become a tradition at Playfair was first taught to us by Carol Ann Fried. For the give-away, all the participants were instructed to find an item that they already owned but were willing to part with, an item that someone else might enjoy receiving. The participants then wrapped these recycled presents as attractively as possible, and brought them to the gift exchange. Let's go back -- in the spirit of the season, like the ghost of Christmas past -- to witness the exchange first-hand.

"Would everyone please gather in a circle, and put the gift you've brought in the center of the circle," instructed Carol Ann. "I'm going to pass around this envelope that has slips of paper numbered one to twenty-five in it. Without looking, reach into the envelope and pull out a slip of paper -- that paper will determine the order in which you pick your gift. . . .

"Who has number one? Carla. Okay, you will be the first person to play, so right now pick a present and unwrap it. . . ." [Carla pounces on her gift, and unwraps it. It's a maroon Wreck Beach sweatshirt. She looks momentarily horrified, but gamely models it for the rest of us before returning to her seat].

"Who has number two? Okay, Krysta, you have a choice. You can either pick a present and unwrap it, or you can take Carla's present, and then she'll pick a different one. What do you want to do?" [Krysta ponders briefly, looking back and forth from the sweatshirt to the pile of gifts. She makes a sudden dash into the center of the circle, grabs a large rectangular box, and tears at the paper to reveal a briefcase with a huge clock in the center of it].

"Okay, who's next? Miles, you've got number three? You've got even better choices. You can either pick a present, or you can take Carla's, or you can take Krysta's, and then they'll pick a new one" [Miles doesn't hesitate at all. He picks a present, which turns out to be a portable clothes steamer].

"Who's next? Sarah, you've got number four. What do you want to do?" [Sarah gleefully takes the briefcase from Krysta]. "Now, Krysta, the rule is that you cannot take the briefcase right back from Sarah on this turn. But if you get the chance to choose something again later, you can get your beloved briefcase back again. So. . . .what's it gonna be?"

[Krysta eyes Miles suspiciously, then grabs his clothes steamer. The scene closes with Miles dancing around the circle, delighted to be rid of the clothes steamer, then carefully choosing yet another package from the heap at the center of the circle. . . .]

As you can see, nothing is safe in our Recycled Holiday Gift Exchange -- and there is a constant ebb and flow of tension as the most treasured gifts pass from one person to another. The beauty (and the drama) of the exchange is that once you have unwrapped a present that you absolutely hate, you are not stuck with it forever. The trick is to try to convince others (through your feigned joy and enthusiasm) of the value of your gift, so they will take it away from you. (Of course you will also want to downplay your love for a gift you absolutely adore, since you know it can be swiped from you at any given moment).

After about half the gifts have been chosen, and a number of the participants have received gifts they desperately want to unload, the Recycled Holiday Gift Exchange starts to sound like an ancient Bazaar, with the "merchants" shouting out the virtues of their wares to each successive player. "Hey, Buddy, come over here, this is what you want! Look at this beautiful fondue set -- the perfect anniversary gift for your wife! How can you live without it?"

The first time I played this game with the Playfair staff I was seated next to Playfair facilitator Andy Weisberg. The gift that Andy had unwrapped was an orange ceramic dachshund, whose back contained a hollowed-out space for holding cocktail frankfurters. From the moment Andy opened it, he tried everything he could think of to unload it. He hawked his prize in a Russian accent, in a French accent, in a Yiddish accent. "Look at this pedigreed dog -- the perfect gift for your kids. One of a kind sculpture! Anybody looking for a work of art? A priceless work of art! Attention Dog Lovers -- complete your valuable collection of canine memorabilia!!!" Andy was constantly in motion, waving the dog over his head, making it dance, making it talk, getting down on his hands and knees to beg for a trade. . . any trade.

Of course, you might ask yourself the question, what possible use could anyone find for anything so ugly? What would possibly possess someone to take that pathetic ceramic dachshund off his hands, no matter how much he begged and pleaded? I often ask myself the same question, as I stare across the desk at my ceramic dachshund business card holder.