White Elephant Party: The Definitive Guide

What is a White Elephant party?

Simply put, it's a Christmas party where each guest brings a funny, unwanted, GAG or cute gift. The idea is for everyone to walk away with a random gift, but first, they will have to fight for them. Not literally of course. The process of swapping gifts is fun, energetic and full of excitement. Gift exchange adds much needed laughter and fun to the Christmas party.

If you’ve ever worked in an office or attended a large holiday gathering with friends or family, no doubt you’ve at one point or another experienced the joy of the White Elephant Gift Exchange. Here's a look at the past and present of this celebrated and equally crazy holiday tradition.

December in the United States brings with it many wonderful traditions.

Certainly, all of the festivities and celebrations surrounding the observances of Christmas and Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are what grabs the attention of most people. 

However, along with all of that frivolity in the year's final month also comes holiday parties.

Lots of them.

Regardless of how full or lean your social calendar ends up being, we bet that at least one of your get-togethers involves one event in particular:  

The White Elephant Gift Exchange.

But where does the term “white elephant” originate? And how did it transform into such an increasingly popular game - one that is an essential part of our yearly holiday celebrations?

Let’s explore where it all began, how it evolved, and how to make the most out your next White Elephant party.

The History of the White Elephant

Would it be surprising to learn that the genesis of the phrase “white elephant” actually begins with a white elephant?

According to most stories and legends, the phrase “white elephant” reaches back several centuries, to the kings of Siam - what is now modern Thailand.

The white elephant - an actual, living, breathing, pigment-free (aka white) pachyderm - is a creature from the Southeast Asian region that includes India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar.

Much of the lore surrounding the white elephant makes it seem equal parts special and troublesome.

Most definitions feature the sacred white elephant as requiring an abnormally high level of care and attention while providing its owner little to no financial gain in return. In fact, laws prevented their use in laborious activity.

As the legends tell it, monarchs of the time, most specifically in Siam, would gift white elephants to those with whom they held a low opinion. The hope was that the upkeep of the revered, but unproductive mammal would bring ruin upon the recipient.

Whether or not that exact reason for gifting white elephants is true or simply a product of myth is up for debate.

A modern day equivalent, however, might be the classic car that sure looks pretty in your driveway or at car shows across the country, but the upkeep required certainly burns a hole through your wallet.

Of course, history and definitions are incredibly local.

In current day Britain, for example, the term “white elephant” is a means to describe costly infrastructure projects that have no redeeming value, financially, operationally, or aesthetically. Never mind that beauty and function is always in the eye of the beholder.

On mainland Europe, the phrase carries a similar connotation in Italy, while in Austria, “white elephant” may refer to an employee with little purpose, but one that you, unfortunately, cannot fire.

Even in the United States, the term gets bandied about when referencing sports stadiums that appear to fleece public pockets.

But that’s a water-cooler discussion for a different day.

We’re not here to dwell on public works or the value of the Austrian worker.

Our focus is the outlandish fun of receiving that one thing in early December that you never knew you needed - the coveted white elephant gift.

You know what we’re talking about — necessities like Bacon Toothpaste, Outdoor Flamingo Lighting, or even a Dog Butt Magnet.

Now that you’re up to speed with the history of albino pachyderms and their gift-giving powers, let’s jump into how these majestic creatures found their way into holiday conference and living rooms across the US.

Modern History of the White Elephant Gift Exchange

The history of the actual White Elephant game in the United States starts with an unlikely individual. Although, if you knew him, it may not be all that surprising that such a person would create such a freewheeling event.

We are speaking about Ezra Cornell, who among his many business and philanthropic pursuits is best known for the following:

  • New York State Senator
  • President of the New York Agricultural Society
  • Founder of Western Union
  • Co-Founder and Namesake of Ivy League Institution Cornell University
  • Father to the 27th Governor of New York

Yeah, the co-founder of Cornell helped to create the White Elephant Gift Exchange. 

It might also be worth mentioning that the guy married outside of his faith - he was a Quaker, his wife a Methodist - and was disowned by the Society of Friends for doing so.

If that doesn’t speak to finding joy in life and seeking out what makes you happy, few other things will.

So maybe it’s not shocking, considering that in the early to mid-19th century New York, Mr. Cornell would frequently hold and attend opulent social gatherings. History suggests he would label the equally showy gifts bestowed at many of these events as white elephants.

Although the accuracy of those specific claims is difficult to verify, the tradition of gift exchanges themselves is not.

A close relative to the White Elephant exchange is the Yankee Swap, with some of its earliest references seen around the 1850s.

In some circles, there are claims that the term Yankee swap may have originated with prisoner trading during the Civil War. The exact terminology, however, is unconfirmed. 

Slightly more believable, and carrying an overall more upbeat vibe, many thank celebrated American writer and humorist, Walt Whitman for coining this Northern version of the gift exchange. 

Whitman, in an anonymous self-review of his own work of poetry, Leaves of Grass, wrote about "the essences of American things." 

One of the things he pointed to, among a long list of revered Americana of the time, was "the Yankee swap."

This particular reference seems to acknowledge the propensity of New Englanders of the time to enjoy trading anything of value.

Actual swap parties, though, didn’t come into vogue until the turn of the century and they only vaguely resemble what we celebrate today.

A 1901 description of such a gathering in the magazine Table Talk noted:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

The article goes on to provide detail as to what typically gets swapped:

Every guest brings four or five little neatly wrapped and tied bundles. The more misleading in shape as to contents the better. The packages may contain anything from candy to soap, starch, tea, book, handkerchief, sun-bonnet, etc., the more absurd the funnier. Each person recommends their own bundles describing the contents as wittily and in a way to deceive as much as possible.

Then, of course, comes the swapping:

The bargaining becomes very shrewd and merry until all the parcels have been swapped, often times more than once. Then they are opened, the best bargain winning first prize, the poorest compelling the holder to tell a story, suggest a game, sing, or recite for the entertainment of the company.

Finally, we rejoice in the collective mood of the attendees:

The universal verdict ― ‘no trouble and lots of fun!’

Even with all of this lightheartedness in those early days of the 20th century, these parties were not referred to as Yankee Swapsuntil much later. Even then they remained the domain of the Northeast.

But that was then.

We have now moved on to the white elephant as an end of the year holiday tradition. A custom where gifts as diversified as ugly sweaters, thirst -quenching booze, and of course, pig flavored tooth whitener all find a seat together at the same holiday table.

Let’s leave the past behind, and ride the white elephant into offices and homes everywhere and see where a contemporary spin on gift swapping has taken us.

White Elephant:  A Game of Many Names

If you think White Elephant and Yankee Swap are the only two ways to refer to the holiday gift exchange, here’s a short list of what some of your fellow Americans call it, and the different variations that come with them:

White Elephant

Let’s set the baseline here with the name by which most of us know the holiday gift exchange. We’ll get into the detail of the core rules shortly, but the basic tenet is you bring a gift, put it in a pile of other gifts, and you and the other participants choose from the heap of presents or steal and swap them from each other.

In the majority of cases, the White Elephant gift one brings is meant to be inexpensive and fun, often jokey in nature, and as the ancient custom notes, possess no useful purpose.

Dirty, Naughty, Stealing, Thieving, or any other iteration of a no-good Santa

Along the same lines as White Elephant, the key difference with Dirty Santa is the aim to bring a gift that does have a purpose and is something wanted by those participating. In some cases, there are even extra side prizes at stake for those whose gift proves to be the most popular or sought after among the players.

Less altruistic versions may ask that attendees bring gifts of a more mature nature. This gameplay is often kept among friends and rarely makes its way to conference rooms.

Dirty, Naughty, Stealing, Thieving, or any other iteration of no-good Elves (see above)

In most cases, naming conventions rely on the organizer of the gift exchange. Executives and Managers may opt for naming their game after the top-billed Santa, whereas disgruntled cubicle workers may relate more closely to an overworked and underpaid elf.

Cutthroat Christmas

One of several names that focus squarely on the theft aspect of swapping gifts, this tends to be for those that like to announce their intentions upfront.

The Grinch Game

For those that appreciate a festive exchange while invoking a holiday classic, The Grinch Game usually comes into play when children are involved.

Machiavellian Christmas

Webster defines Machiavellian as “suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli, specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith." Niccolo Machiavelli was a Renaissance-era scribe who often receives credit as the father of modern political science. So yeah, perhaps that game of Cutthroat Christmas is preferable to one steeped in politics.

Pollyanna Swap

A true deviation from the game we commonly associate with White Elephant, Pollyanna Swap harkens back to the swap parties in the early 1900s. Highly regional in nature, and not always associated with the holiday season, the Pollyanna Swap, as the always upbeat children’s book character suggests, deals in gifts that no matter the shape or form taken, possess genuine purpose and are items that should be cherished.

Rob Your Neighbor, Snatchy Christmas Rat, Steal-A-Thon, Thieves’ Christmas

Seriously, if you work in an office or have friends or family that insist upon calling their White Elephant gift exchange any of the above names it might be time to skip town, find a new job, and delete all of the contacts in your phone.

Sweater Swap (also works for socks)

A relatively new variant to the world of gift exchanges, the Sweater Swap piggybacks off the recent phenomena of people showing their holiday spirit by proudly wearing increasingly outlandish Christmas sweaters.

When it comes to knitted holiday outerwear, since no tree is too gaudy and no reindeer too bright, it's for obvious reasons this particular event also goes by the name Ugly Sweater Swap.

Yankee Swap

Let’s bookend our list of White Elephant exchange names with arguably the second most well-known name. Even if you were unaware of its previous history (you’re welcome), you, like most modern audiences, may have been introduced to the name thanks to the television show “The Office.”

When a ho-hum office-wide game of Secret Santa becomes a hilarious game of Yankee Swap (thank you Michael Scott), the real competition begins, with folks vying for a $400 iPod, a teapot, a nameplate, and even a jazz babies poster.

White Elephant Rules: Playing the White Elephant Gift Exchange

Regardless of what it’s called, there is a method to the madness of the White Elephant Gift Exchange. There does a exist a set of universal rules that govern almost all exchanges. In some cases, folks will stretch the limits in the interest of putting their own spin and uniqueness on a game.

First, let’s lay out each step to White Elephant gameplay, and then we’ll get into the tips and tricks, and best practices of ensuring your White Elephant event is anything but useless.

Gameplay

It probably goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway, the first step is that every participant brings one wrapped gift to the proceedings. Numbers are then drawn by each player with number 1 going first, number 2 second, and, of course, you know the rest. 

Step 1

Player One selects a gift from the gift pile and opens it.

Step 2

Player Two can opt to steal player one’s gift or select a new gift from the gift pile. If Player Two does thieve the gift from Player One, then Player One must pick a new gift from the gift pile. They cannot steal back from Player Two.

Step 3

Player Three can steal from either Player One or Two or select a new gift from the gift pile. If Player Three does steal a gift, a similar scenario to step 3 occurs, in which a player cannot take back a gift that was immediately snatched from them, instead stealing from another player or choosing a new item from the gift pile.

Step 4

Gameplay continues in the same fashion with Player Four having the ability to steal a gift from Players One, Two, or Three or choosing a new, unopened gift. The game keeps going until every gift is opened.

House Rules and Other Ways to Nurture Your White Elephant

As you may have noticed, a good wholesome game of White Elephant can quickly devolve into insanity and confusion. For that reason, and to ensure an overall great experience by all players, it's wise to establish a few rules and boundaries.

Limits to a Players Thievery

With gift stealing being a central tenant to any White Elephant game, in the interest of time and keeping the game moving forward, placing limits on the number of times a gift is stolen is a smart move. 

We suggest abiding by the rule of three:

Three Steals per Item

The most common rule in the world of the White Elephant is limiting the number of steals for an item to three times, after which it becomes locked down with the third person to possess it, not to be stolen again. This rule helps to maintain a swift pace and is especially helpful when playing with a large group.

Three Steals per Person

In a similar vein, an individual can only suffer a theft three times. After a player steals a gift from them on the third occasion, the next gift they choose is theirs to keep.

Three Possession Rule

Less common than the first two rules, the three possession rule dictates that if a gift passes through the same set of hands three times, that individual gets to keep it on the third own. For example:

Player One unwrapped the magical, mystical gift of Bacon Toothpaste (seriously, we love that stuff). That constitutes their first own.

Later on, Player Three decides they want the fresh, swiney taste of Bacon Toothpaste and steals it. Player One chooses a new gift from the gift pile.

Player Five then decides to steal the new gift from Player One, which provides Player One the opening to steal back the toothpaste, which is own number two.

As the game continues, someone again steals the toothpaste from Player One. However, should fate shine on Player One, and they are once again able to steal the toothpaste a second time, then that is own number three, and bacony clean teeth are theirs forever.

The other aspect of stealing defined in the gameplay steps is the lack of immediate steal-backs. To ensure your game runs smoothly and doesn’t bog down in circular chaos, should a player steal a gift, the person losing the item must choose a new one or steal another gift from a different player, but not the gift immediately taken from them.

Gift Giving and Knowing Your Audience

Regardless of who you play with or where you play, the success or failure of the White Elephant exchange often hinges on the gifts in play. That said, the point of the game is to have fun.

There are few parameters that all organizers should incorporate, and players accommodate to keep the game light and everyone smiling.

Budget

Perhaps above all other planning that goes into your game of White Elephant make sure to set a budget and be certain your crowd sticks to it. Plenty of fun, swappable items are available for less than $25, which is often the absolute limit for most White Elephants. However, with some parties, especially those that involve couples participating together, a $50 to $100 limit is not unheard of.

Those without deep pockets can still have fun. Even a $10 limit can incorporate plenty of unique and fun ideas, items that generate a lot of enjoyment and interaction during your game. The critical point is to factor in everyone who’s playing and recognize that not everyone can or will want to spend a lot of money on a White Elephant gift.

Know Thy Audience

One of the critical factors to a successful White Elephant game is that everyone playing is on the same page.

Most commonly, White Elephant games occur in an office environment, so it may not be the best place for alcohol, certain types of gag or adult-oriented gifts, or anything else that might seem offensive in nature. If you are organizing an office event, make sure you are fully aware of the collective culture as well as individual values.

With friends or family, it's important to draw a line should any children be present or want to play. Again, this many times comes down to individual values and beliefs, so understand the room first and don’t assume everyone holds the same views.

Themes

While there’s a lot to be said for the randomness of an anything goes exchange, themes can generate a higher level of excitement and creativity. Many versions of White Elephant prove successful when a theme is selected, and the gifts in play are closely related to one another.

 We already mentioned the popularity of cheap, and ostentatious holiday sweaters, but other ideas include:

Basic Everyday Themes

  • Cookbooks
  • Ornaments
  • Alcohol (again, this should be audience-specific)
  • Gift Cards
  • Gag Gifts
  • Baked Goods or Junk Food
  • Pet or Animal Related Items (if you go with this make sure everyone owns pets)

Themes for How to Procure a Gift

  • From Local Vendors Only (not something that comes from a big box store)
  • From a Dollar Store (you can also say have it be x number of items from the dollar store)
  • From a Walmart or Target, but Must be an Item On Clearance

Theme Themes

  • Items from a Specific Decade
  • Gifts that are Sports, Movie, or Music Related
  • Kitchen-, Cook-, or Barware

Having an overall theme to your White Elephant exchange doesn’t hurt either.

Final Thoughts

White Elephant parties are about the holidays, so don’t lose sight of your core reason for having the gathering in the first place.

From a history that includes being both problematic and practical, it's nice to see the White Elephant develop into a modern-day holiday tradition.

Whether as an organizer or participant, the key purpose of any White Elephant Gift Exchange is to enjoy good company and ultimately to have fun. And, of course, to keep those fingers crossed for that tube of Bacon Toothpaste.

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