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Q From Lori Manning-Bolis: I live near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. We used pollyanna for an exchange of gifts as if everyone knew it (I first heard the term in the Girl Scouts as a young girl). I’ve not been able to find out anything about it. Have you heard of this usage of pollyanna?

A I haven’t — it’s not known in the UK. As you say, it’s not in most dictionaries. However, it is in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which confirms that it is now mainly heard in and around Pennsylvania and devotes almost a column to quotations that explain how it’s used.

It’s a way to give gifts, as you say, to other members of a group, such as fellow workers in an office, other members of a club, or within a large family. The formal term at one time was Pollyanna gift exchange, which turns up a lot in newspapers from about 1947 on, but now seems to be virtually extinct. The idea is to limit present giving by ensuring that each person gives one gift to one other person in the group; often a ceiling is placed on the amount that can be spent on each gift. In some cases, each person provides a gift already wrapped so nobody knows what it is; the potential recipients draw lots to decide who gets which gift. Or people draw lots to determine who buys a gift for whom; sometimes recipients are asked to guess who bought it for them. Both the giver and the receiver may be called the pollyanna. Though the term isn’t known in Britain, the idea behind it is, as I assume it is elsewhere.

DARE has a first example from 1985, but with modern electronic data files it’s easy to take that back a long way. This, for example, appeared in the Nebraska State Journal in July 1922: “A group of Pollyannas met Friday morning from 10 to 1 o’clock at the home of Ruth Barnard for a shower in honor of Miss Ola Kallenberger who is soon to become the bride of Charles Spacht. Two hours were spent pleasantly with games, during which Miss Kallenberger was showered with a large assortment of towels, holders and recipes.”

Further delving in old newspapers in various American states turns up lots of references to Pollyanna clubs or societies from 1916 onwards, always associated with churches. Their function seems from context to have been social and entertaining. A search on Google shows that such clubs still exist in some places — perhaps some current or recent member knows about their early history.

I can find nothing that says why they were called that, though the lack of references before 1916 suggests they were named after the Pollyanna stories of Eleanor Hodgman Porter — the first one, called Pollyanna, was published in 1913. Presumably the reference is to the “glad game” that Pollyanna teaches her town, in which people find cause for happiness in the most disastrous situations. The servant Nancy explains it: “It’s a game Miss Pollyanna’s father learned her ter play. She got a pair of crutches once in a missionary barrel when she was wantin’ a doll; an’ she cried, of course, like any child would. It seems ’twas then her father told her that there wasn’t ever anythin’ but what there was somethin’ about it that you could be glad about; an’ that she could be glad about them crutches.” The reason she should feel glad in this case, her father tells her, is that she doesn’t need them.

This gift-giving sense seems to be quite separate from the more usual meaning of Pollyanna, also from the books: an excessively cheerful or optimistic person, a term often used derisively for one who achieves happiness through self-delusion.


Many subscribers pointed out, after this piece first appeared, that in the USA the Christmastide, or Holiday Season, version of the gift-giving system is sometimes called Secret Santa, as it also is to some extent in Australia and Britain. However, this name usually refers to an expanded form in which gift-givers and recipients are matched at random at the start of the holiday season. The gift-giver anonymously provides lots of little gifts or small attentions to the chosen recipient as a way of making the lead-up to the holiday more fun; the gift-giver reveals his or her identity when handing over the final present. A related custom in Australia has been given the name Kris Kringle, confusingly so for Americans, who know Kris Kringle as another name for Santa Claus.

Virginia Graziani provided a description of a variation: “Everyone brings a wrapped gift (cost is limited) and puts it under the tree. The master of ceremonies passes a hat from which everyone draws a numbered piece of paper. Whoever draws number one chooses a gift, unwraps it, and shows it to the group. Then number two can either choose a new gift, or take number one’s gift. If the latter, number one chooses a new gift. In either case the new gift is unwrapped and displayed. Number three can choose a new gift or take either of the previous gifts, and so on, until everyone has had a turn and all the gifts have been distributed.” Often the person who goes first, who would otherwise be left out of the exchanges, gets to swap with any of the presents at the end of the session. This goes by the name of Yankee swap in New England; some other Americans know it as a Chinese auction.

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Page created 30 Apr 2005; Last updated 03 May 2005