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If you’re readying for your office’s white elephant party or thinking of planning your own for the first time, learn the rules and history behind this fun gift-giving game.
Also known as a Yankee swap or dirty Santa, a white elephant gift exchange is a holiday present-giving party aimed at entertaining rather than gaining.
Each participant in the game brings one gift to contribute to the exchange, and one by one the gifts are unwrapped by others at the party.
The twist is that you may end up opening more than one gift because anyone who takes a turn after you has the opportunity to steal your gift away. This makes the exchange fun, silly and downright competitive at times.
Each white elephant exchange has its own unique rules. But to keep the exchange from degenerating into chaos, you may want to consider these basic guidelines:
White elephant gift exchanges are named after a legend about the King of Siam, who allegedly gifted albino white elephants to those who displeased him. The elephants might’ve seemed like a cool gift, but their upkeep costs were enormous and could ruin the lives of the king’s enemies.
Famous American circus master P.T. Barnum paid an enormous expense to import one of these white elephants from England in the 19th century, only to find his crowds completely unimpressed. Americans latched on to the idea of gifting a “white elephant,” and gift exchanges in the early 20th century eventually evolved into the holiday game we know and love today.
Hosting a white elephant gift party is fun and easy. All you need is a group of friends or family, some holiday music and decorations and maybe a few snacks. Ask your invitees to each bring a gift to participate in the game.
If you want, you can set a theme or a price limit. The theme can be anything you’d like — maybe you’d like your guests to bring books or Christmas ornaments.
A commonly used theme is regifts: Simply ask people to bring gifts they themselves have been given but have no use for. Just make sure your guests know if the original gift giver will be at the party. That could be awkward.
White elephant exchanges are supposed to be low key and fun, so if you set a price limit, make sure it isn’t too high. The best part of the exchange is often the funny and outrageous gifts that guests select.
When your guests arrive, give everyone a bit of time to socialize before launching the game. After everyone has had a few drinks to loosen up, start the exchange.
Make sure everyone knows the rules to avoid any conflicts or hurt feelings. You’ll be sure to fill the house with laughter and make memories that will last for years to come.
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