Budgetary restraint around the world has had many unintended consequences.

The new frugality has resulted in an odd combination of rules, restraint, gift-giving, barely stifled competition and of tactics, strategy that make Survivor shows look like kindergarten play.

Someone will tell you, with feigned sincerity, that there is a new way to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. It is the holiday party gift exchange. It is a wonderful way for friends to get together, exchange small gifts of friendship in recognition of the holiday season without succumbing to the excesses of gifting one upmanship or feeling the pressure to haunt the aisles of every store on Main Street looking for the perfect present.

Gifts go back to biblical stories of the birth of Christ; the three wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and and myrrh are an integral part of the iconography of the Christian holiday celebration. Long before any of us knew what frankincense was, we knew about gift giving.

Often gifts are not usually opened at the time of presentation; joy, disappointment and incredulity are difficult to hide in the instant of gift opening. Unfortunate misunderstandings could arise if the giver sees anything but unbridled joy at the selection of the electric Xmas tie that lights up Santa’s nose and plays a very tinny Jingle Bells.

Usually gift pools have an innocent beginning. You are going somewhere for Christmas. Your host announces that guests must bring one wrapped but otherwise unmarked gift; usually a maximum price is set to limit disparity and usually guests are encouraged to find whimsical if not downright humorous presents.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. Now your first strategic decisions are in your face. It’s damn hard to find a “whimsical if not downright humorous present” when you know the recipient, let alone when you don’t know the recipient. For women, it’s like on of those occasions when you don’t know what to wear. Those issues seem now to be beyond the vision of men and comparable dilemmas are hard to find. Sort of like what do you get a new girl friend, if anything, for Christmas, to convey the right message?

Upon arrival at the Christmas event, the guests surreptitiously add the presents to a pile in the center of the room — call it the pit. There are usually around 12 guests. The more the better if your memory is good.

Soon the host/hostess passes a hat filled with slips of numbered paper. Each guest plucks a number out of the hat, establishing the order of participation in the gift receiving game.

The game begins when guest number one chooses one of the wrapped gifts and opens it. Great, scented bath oil for a guy who … well who isn’t too well groomed. Guest number two gets to choose between the scented bath oil or an unopened gift. This could be easy depending on the age, sex and habits of the second guest. If the second guest would like to claim the scented bath oil another tactical question arises. Should the guest announce his or her interest in the scented bath oil or is it better to lie in the weeds and to see what happens.

By now, experienced gift pool players have started to assess the nature of their relationships with guests holding higher numbers to see if there are potential allies among them, what the gift preferences of guests with higher numbers might be and their age and sex. If you don’t know any of the guests with the higher numbers, and you want the scented bath oil, take it, say its your mother’s favourite brand and conceal it.

If guest No. 2 chooses an unopened gift, watch his or her reaction carefully as the gift is opened, and do this each time a guest opens an unopened gift. You want to know if a guest likes a gift or not and if they will try to keep the gift or if they may try and dump the gift. The second unopened gift is a radio for the shower. Who wants a radio for the shower? You never know. Often, the spirit of the evening competition for wacky gifts stops just short of knife fights.

Then guest No. 3 has to decided whether to open an unopened gift or whether to take the scented bath oil or the shower radio. Probably at this stage No. 3 will choose an unopened gift. It’s a good bottle of wine. Instantly the others start to scheme.

Guest No. 4 decides that a bird in the hand . . . etc. and claims the bottle of wine. This means that No. 3 gets to chose again. Now it depends on whether you are playing by Marquess of Queensberry or bare knuckle rules. In some pools, under bare knuckle rules guest No. 3 can take the wine back or go for a unopened gift. In families with a majority of young boys the rough rules usually apply. If guest No. 3 takes the wine back, No. 4 cannot take the wine back  and must choose an unopened gift.

Bare knuckle rules are unusual and also depend on other factors, such as the host’s attitude to underage drinking … or smoking if one of the presents is cigars. No. 3 takes the wine back.

Everyone watches as No. 4 opens new gift. It’s a scale for weighing a suitcase. No. 4 is grumpy. He wanted the wine. Guest No. 8 says, “I need one of those”.

As guest No. 5, having decided to open an unopened gift, reaches for a gift, No. 4 approaches No. 8 with a proposition:. “When it’s your turn, guest #8, you take the wine from guest No. 3 and I will swap you the scale for the wine. Arrangements like this have to be put in place quietly so that guests Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12 don’t overhear.

The gift that No. 5 opens is a hardbound edition of Lee Child’s latest book. No. 5 has read it and wants to dump it. “Fabulous!!!”, No. 5 gleefully announces. ”I really wanted to get a copy of this but its has been sold out all over town.”

Guest No. 9 using the pretext of getting a drink, walks past No. 5 and says, “You can have my choice later and I will take any opened gift or trade you an unopened gift for the Lee Child book. No. 5 wants to leave options open and wants to hold all options open. “I will tell you just before your turn.”

Guest No. 6 is an old lady. As she considers her options, No. 1 quietly pushes the scented bath oils behind the sofa and without rushing or attracting attention leaves to go to the bathroom. “Wasn’t there bath oil somewhere?” says No. 6. Heads are scratched, there is the briefest of lulls and guest No. 7, a seven-year-old boy, says, “Come on, Aunt Lilly, it’s your turn.” The guests are swept along and Aunt Lilly, guest No.  6, opens a case of Heineken. She is unruffled because she knows that the (unmarked) gift that she put in the pool is still unopened and is a favourite perfume spray that it is unlikley anyone else will want.

No. 7 takes the case of Heineken, with his father’s tacit support and with his mother’s announced disapproval and a loud comment that some other guest must take it from her son.

Aunt Lilly, No. 6, can’t find her gift and so opens another one. It is a boxed set of the sound track for Jersey Boys and of WestSide Story. Guest No. 11, a 16-year-old girl expresses her pleasure.

Guest No. 8 thinks about it but remembers and takes the wine from No. 3 and swaps it for the scale from No. 4.

No. 4, a Marquess of Queensberry player, decides it would be unseemly to go after the wine and takes the shower radio from No. 2.

No. 2, a risk taker, picks up an unopened gift. It is a huge chocolate Santa, but he has young kids who are with his ex tonight so this has possibilities.

Guest No. 9 takes the Heineken from No. 7, whose mother forbids him from taking  the Heineken back.  So he takes an unopened gift. It is a boxed bottle of Armangac. His eyes glow with the possibilities.

Remembering the reaction of guest No. 11, Guest No. 10, the husband of Aunt Lilly, sees that guest No. 1 has returned and says that he wants the scented bath oil. He then swaps the scented bath oil for the boxed set of the sound track for Jersey Boys and of WestSide Story.

No. 11, on her turn, takes the boxed set of the sound track for Jersey Boys and of WestSide Story. As he had planned, this gives guest No. 10 the chance to scoop the Armangac.

Crushed, No. 7 takes another turn. There are only two unopened gifts left. He takes the smaller one. It is a bottle of perfume.

Guest No. 12, mother of despondent No. 7, claims the perfume.

No. 7, not permitted to claim the Heineken or the Armangac, opens the last gift. It is an Xbox game which, by some miracle, he does not have.

Some would that this is the antithesis of the spirit of gift giving. I say it celebrates the true meaning of receiving. We get to receive many gifts over the course of the evening. Likewise, it celebrates giving; we give up many gifts over the evening. Some say it encourages covetousness, which has a strong biblical tradition. If I see a gift that I want, I get to take it out of someone’s hands, regardless of whether they have chosen it blindly from the pile or taken it from someone else. I say it tests our ability to give — and give and give again — and thus teaches us the true spirit of giving. Some say it is mindlessly selfish, teaching narcissism over generosity. I say it teaches self reliance: If I really want one particular gift, I have to spend the balance of the game figuring out how to get it into my hands and into my car for the trip home. It is virtuous and teaches many valuable lessons in life.

Finally, if you needs even more reason to support of this game, it teaches the value of trading, which reinforces all the strategies of the commodities trader, equities trader and bond trader. Rumor has it that the idea emerged in the trading pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by traders tired of being limited to trading hog futures and lots of tobacco. They say the concept was further refined by the good folks on Wall Street who built the market for mortgage backed securities. This could be true; let’s face it, they haven’t been that busy since they caused the worldwide global financial and economic meltdown. This was a humane application of their skills.

Perhaps, though, I like this gift exchange because last year I won a super-duper Buzz Lightyear night light that I got in the last round of gift taking. Little Jimmy wasn’t that happy about having to give it up to Uncle Bob, but there is no doubt he’s learned the joy of giving in a way that will stay with him for life and will be indelibly tied to his warm memories of Christmas. ◊