What Is It? A fun Christmas gift swap

This year, my sister came up with an interesting idea for our family’s gift swap. She was inspired by the “What Is It?” segment on This Old House, where a guest asks the show’s hosts what the purpose of an unusual-looking item or object is.

She said, “Find or acquire an item that you think will stump everyone else on Christmas Eve. Don’t spend more than $5 on it.”  

Everyone agreed that this sounded fun! My sons and I went to two thrift stores and one antique store to find our “treasures” prior to Christmas Eve.

Last night, we had our first annual “What Is it?” swap (and oh yes, this game will be repeated next year!) Here’s what we did: 

  • Everyone drew numbers to determine the order that the gifts would be opened.
  • We passed out scraps of paper and pencils to everyone.
  • Person #1 chose a wrapped gift from the pile and opened the gift.
  • Every guest (other than the gift-opener) then wrote their idea of what they felt the mystery item might be on a piece of paper. 
  • The guesses were collected in an envelope, which was handed to Person #2. 
  • Person #2 read all of the suggestions aloud to the group (so Person #1 could not recognize the other guests’ handwriting.)
  • Person #1 then chose the suggestion that they liked best. If you’ve ever played Apples To Apples, you may already realize that the item’s actual purpose was not necessarily the “right” answer — in our group, many times the funniest answer suggested was the winner!
  • Whoever wrote the “winning” description of the mystery item won that item! 
  • Play then progressed to Person #2 and continued until there were no more wrapped gifts to open. We had 13 people at the party, so this game actually took quite a while to complete. 

For example, consider these two mystery items, which were wrapped together:

swapitem2 swapitem5

Everyone had a chance to examine both items, then wrote down what they thought these items were. Here were some of the guests’ suggestions:


In this case, the winning suggestion was “Fly swatter and a stapler to staple the dead fly to a board.” (Yes, some of our answers got pretty ridiculous, which only added to the fun!) 

What are these items really? The first one is a Hawthorne strainer without its spring (thanks readers who identified this in a previous post! None of us had ever seen one.) 

The second item was actually my favorite thing that we brought to this game — it’s a stapleless stapler! I found this at a thrift store for a dollar. It uses pressure to press and emboss up to five sheets of paper together without needing a staple: 


Get the idea? Here were some more highlights from our gift swap game. These two mystery items were unwrapped together: 


And, here’s what some people thought these items were…


We still aren’t sure what the first item is (it’s made of cast iron… any ideas?)  The second item is a pot lifter from a camping mess kit.  


Here’s another item that our family brought to the swap. I actually did know what this was when I bought it, but some of the party guests did not:


In this case, the correct answer was given — it is indeed a handheld clay pigeon thrower for skeet shooting. However, “New York City Mob Cigar Lighter” was the winning answer!

One of our family members brought a wild-looking zigzag-patterned bag to the swap. Clearly, everyone recognized it was a bag, but that didn’t stop us from having fun with the guesses:


All of the answers were really funny, but the winner walked away with his “Do It Yourself Make-Your-Friend’s-Valuables-Disappear Kit!” I really thought that “Low-profile airline luggage” could have been a contender too…

Another one of the gifts we brought to the swap were these lovely items: 


And, here were some of the suggestions…


Other guesses included “hot dog holders” and “butter dishes,” but the labels on the bottom identified these as a pair of Hot Taco Holders (!) 

Other items came with their original packaging, but the gift-giver removed the box to obscure the item’s actual purpose. What’s this?



This battery-operated round object came with two bricks of what appeared to be wax. Many guesses involved candle-making or scenting the air, but when the original box was revealed, we learned that this was a…



Exhilarating soap massager? It vibrates your bar of soap for you! My sister was laughing so hard that an item like this even existed, and she shared how lucky she felt to spot this brand-new in the box for $1.99 at the Goodwill store. 


I did the same thing when we brought this item to the swap, as the box would have given away that this blue item was not a stapler, but instead was a…


Handheld Mini Chain Stitch Sewing Machine. You can only imagine my excitement when I scored this baby for a buck at a thrift store too.

Some items had no discernible purpose. I picked this mysterious item up in its original box at an antiques store for $3: 


What is it? The clerk explained to me that it is made of Hoya Japanese crystal with a silver stem. But what is it? The clerk told me that it is a “vase decoration” to be displayed with flowers in a vase. My sister won it in our swap when she correctly identified it as a “Bibbity Bobbity Boo Wand.” 

There was one item though that perplexed everyone at the party. This was another $1.99 Goodwill store find purchased by my sister. She said she saw three men examining it in the store. When none of them could identify it, they put it back on the shelf, at which point she knew she had to have it!


Well, guess what — none of us could figure out what this thing might be for either. My dad said  that he had a tool like this back in his farming days, only it had two ball-shaped ends instead of one, and it was used to grab a bull by the nose (one side in each nostril.) 

Here are some alternate views of this unusual Goodwill-store find: 


The screw at the end can be adjusted to hold the tool in a fixed position. (UPDATE: Reader Robbie shared that this tool is a cobbler’s bunion pliers for stretching leather!)

We all had a silly, laughter-filled fun swap this year, and everyone wants to do it again next Christmas. The whole night had a fun family-game-night element to it too with the crazy gift suggestions and strange items everyone brought to the table. We had a couple winners end up with more than one gift at the end of the night due to their creative item suggestions, so they gifted their surplus items to people who hadn’t yet won anything.

Imagine the kinds of things we’ll be able to find with an entire year to hunt for secondhand treasures! 


  1. Kristy says

    I saw something similar to the last item hanging on the wall when I visited the black smith shop at the Lisle Depot Days.

    • says

      The trivet possibility was discussed, but that item is only about 3″ wide. It would have to be a very small pot to rest on the center ring! :)

      I didn’t get a photo of that note, but someone did call it a “medieval jacks game piece” too.

  2. ellen says

    maybe a tool to handle blocks of ice. looks like what they used to use back in the day before modern refrigerators when the ice man delivered ice to your house.

    • says

      We talked about that, but the ice tools have a pick on each end to grip into the ice.

      Someone theorized it might be for metalworking, as you could put a divot into a sheet of metal with the round end pressing into the open/circle end?

  3. cream89 says

    this is a great idea, i wish you had mentioned it before thanksgiving so we could have done something similar. please remind us all next fall to BOLO for funky items !

    • says

      My sister just dreamed it up a few days before Christmas Eve — we all shopped last-minute! Next year we’ll have more time to plan… and so will you guys if you want to do something similar :)

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