Dear Etiquetteer: Now with the holidays well past us there seem to be people who are now well into re-gifting. The extreme of this is the Re-Gift Party where a carefully chosen guest list is asked to bring at least one gift for which he/she wants to swap for someone else's unwanted gift. (This seems to be somewhat akin to the ugly Santa exchange.) There are also people, like myself, who think a Goodwill donation is better. Of course, we also have that person who thinks it better to ask the recipient if their gift can be used and if not, please give it back! Having just declined an invitation to a re-gift party, I would like to know if there couldn't be a respectful manner in which to deal with unwanted and/or non-useful items that arrive in fancy gift wraps.
Etiquetteer knows the sort of function you describe as a Yankee Swap or a White Elephant Party. Once upon a time such affairs did not follow hard on the heels of Christmas as a rule. They were given more in the spirit of thrifty housecleaning, e.g. "I have no use for this, but surely someone else does." In that respect, they promote recycling and could be promoted among the ostentatiously "green" set. (They might even find a way to attach carbon offsets to it.)
When approached with the proper Sense of Humor, Yankee Swaps can be a great deal of fun. The basic procedure (of which there are several variations) goes like this: each guest that has brought an Item of Possible Usefulness/Amusement to Others draws a number from a hat. Then, in numerical order, guests are allowed to choose the Item They Prefer from the other selections. Suspense is introduced in this way: each subsequent guest may also choose an Item They Prefer, even if someone before them has chosen it! For instance, if Guest Number One chose a funny deck of playing cards, Guest Number Three could claim it; Guest Number One would then have to choose another Item. But Guest Number Six might equally want that deck of cards, and could then "steal" them from Guest Number Three! When all guest have had the opportunity to choose a gift, the Swap ends when Guest Number One declares s/he is happy with the Item In Hand, or make choose any Item another guest has. So that deck of funny cards could then finally be claimed at the end, leaving Guest Number Six holding the Item that Guest Number One had ended up with.
Etiquetteer thinks the principal purpose of a Swap or Regift Party really isn't getting rid of unwanted stuff, but Mere Amusement. Problems come up when guests move beyond Amusement to Greed. And you must be careful not to bring an Item that another guest gave you, to prevent Publicly Hurt Feelings.
You did the right thing in declining an invitation to a party into which you couldn't enter with the Proper Spirit. A more practical and generous solution to housecleaning, as you point out, is to donate Items No Longer Useful to Oneself to charity. It is also a Perfectly Proper way to acquire a tax deduction.
Etiquetteer is delighted to receive your questions about all manner of Perfect Propriety at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.