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The History of White Elephant Gift Exchanges

What has become a fun and silly way to celebrate the holidays, white elephant gift exchanges, started as something a little more serious. While there is some disagreement among historians, the most popular theory refers back to the gift of an actual albino elephant. Today, a white elephant gift exchange is a party game where participants bring in fun or silly gifts and open or "steal" a gift based on their preferences. The rules are typically pretty simple.

  1. All of the gifts go into one big pile.
  2. Participants take turns opening gifts.
  3. During your turn, you can either open a wrapped present or "steal" a present that someone else has unwrapped.
  4. To prevent endless cycles of stealing, some variations impose limits on stealing.
  5. Turns continue until there are no more presents to unwrap and everyone has a present.

The Not Fun History of a Fun Party Game

However, while today this is a fun party game when gifted with an actual albino elephant recipients rarely react with joy. According to the legend surrounding the origin of the game, the King of Siam used albino elephants as a signal of displeasure. When he wanted to punish a member of his court, a gift of a white elephant was an effective measure. Since elephants are revered in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the gift of an elephant meant a long term commitment. And, the upkeep for an elephant is enormous. Of course, this legend is unlikely to have much historical accuracy, but it illustrates the point that a white elephant is an impractical, expensive to maintain gift with no value, which makes it a perfect comparison for a gift swap that should embody many of the same characteristics.

A Game By Any Other Name

White Elephant, Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa are all gift-swapping party games that use pretty similar rules. With Dirty Santa, there might be more stealing, and it's more common in the South, while Yankee Swap gifts might be a little more useful and less campy, but all of these games have one thing in common--there's plenty of jostling to get the best gifts.