“White Elephant,” “Thieves’ Christmas,” “Rob Your Neighbor”- no matter what you refer to it as, chances are you’ve played a version of this fun, gift-giving tradition at a holiday event with friends, family members or co-workers. But how did this game earn its moniker, and where did it originate? And for St. Nick’s sake, what does one give for a White Elephant “gift”? To find out, this roving reporter did some serious research just for you, our readers.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says that a “white elephant” is “property requiring much care and expense, and while it may not be of value to its present owner, the object may have value to others.” This term seems to have originated in Asian culture, where white elephants were considered holy, but very expensive to keep. A king or ruler, when upset with one of his subjects, would gift them a white elephant, which would soon prove much too costly and would lead to the subject’s financial downfall, thereby giving the king revenge for whatever wrongdoing he felt had occurred. While few reliable sources exist, there is one popular theory about how the term “white elephant” came to describe the gift-giving game. Ezra Cornell (of Cornell University fame) began using this word to describe gifts at some of the many lavish parties he attended, and the term seemed to carry on through the years.
Typically the rules of a White Elephant dictate the following:
- The party host determines a “theme” for the gift-giving: ornaments, something lying around the house, candy, homemade gifts, clothing items, something that goes on a wall, etc. The more creative, the better.
- Each player contributes a gift to a pile from which everyone will choose.
- After drawing numbers, players choose gifts to open in that order, or they may “steal” a present that had been opened previously by another player.
- If your gift is stolen, the process repeats itself, and hilarity ensues.
Many party hosts (and guests) add their own flair to the game, and can set limitations on how many times a gift can be stolen or exchanged. This limit ensures that the game will eventually come to an end, so that everyone can participate in other party fun.
Personally, I had never heard of “White Elephant” gift-giving until I began dating my now-husband. I was introduced to the tradition at my mother-in-law’s family Christmas. The Bean/Hamilton family knows how to have fun when they get together! They treat “White Elephant” as the tradition began, and everyone searches closets, attics, basements and, yes, even local thrift stores for the tackiest, most ridiculous, or most outlandish gift. As you can imagine, laughter rules the night as each person opens and eventually loses a gift when someone chooses to steal it from them. One year, the gifts included lottery tickets that had already been scratched off and weren’t “winners,” a six-pack that consisted of only three cans that still contained beer, a pair of Christmas-themed underwear that seems to turn up year after year, and my personal favorite – an authentic sombrero that someone had dug out of their parents’ attic, still covered in dust and maybe a few spider webs.
Every year, I would try to be creative when choosing and wrapping my gift, attempting to wrap it as attractively as possible – a must to ensure someone picks your present to open. But being the least creative person on the planet, my gifts always fell short of amusing. So I decided to help everyone out this year and give you (and me) a few ideas of what to take if we are attending a White Elephant event.
Ideally, you want your gift to be funny or weird. But, of course, you can always bring a nice, high-quality gift. But why be a party pooper, huh? Join in on the fun, and add to the level of laughter by bringing something totally off-the-wall and unexpected. Below are some ideas:
- Ugly Christmas sweaters- homemade or store-bought, it doesn’t matter as long as they are UGLY!
- Gift cards – I know, I know, these are a cop out. But these aren’t your typical gift cards. These are $25 or $50 gift cards with less than a $5 balance on them.
- Crazy socks or tee shirts with funny sayings
- A redneck bubble bath – Google it, you will love it!
- Cold, hard cash- freeze money in a block of ice and give in a plastic bag.
- For more great ideas, search Pinterest for “White Elephant gift exchange.”
Of course, you can always be nice, and bring a gift someone may actually want or have use for. I mean, it is Christmas, right? The bottom line in White Elephant gift-giving is that it doesn’t matter what you bring to contribute to the pile of presents, but be sure to bring your camera and a healthy sense of humor, because it will be entertaining!