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White Elephant gift exchange: What to know about this holiday tradition

Whether you’re an old pro or it’s your first time participating, here’s everything you should know about white elephant parties.

Updated

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.

What is a white elephant gift exchange?

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.

What are the game rules?

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:

  • Each person brings one gift to the exchange. You can draw names or numbers from a hat to determine the order of opening.
  • Make sure everyone can see the pile of gifts and the gift being opened. This way, players can decide if they’d rather steal a gift or open a new one.
  • The first player must choose and open a gift, but each player after can either steal away an opened gift or choose a gift of their own.
  • If your gift is stolen, you must select a new gift to open. Some parties have a rule about the number of times a gift is allowed to be stolen, but it’s up to the discretion of the host.
  • To keep the fun going at the end of the game, the first person to open a gift has the option of stealing any other player’s gift and exchanging it with their own. The player whose gift is stolen can then steal a gift from another player, and the game can go on until a player finally settles on the gift they have.

White elephant party gift ideas

Kate Spade 'Lets Do Lunch' Business Card Holder
Kate Spade 'Lets Do Lunch' Business Card Holder

Nordstrom

AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker with Tote Bag
AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker with Tote Bag

Amazon

Looking for more gift options? Check out our secret Santa gift guide.

How did white elephant get started?

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.

How do I throw a white elephant gift party?

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.

A finder White Elephant gift moment:

My wife’s younger brother, Andy, was running really late for Christmas gifts about 20 years ago, and so he went to his town’s truck stop on Christmas Eve and bought the only thing that was left there for their older brother, Chris — a quesadilla maker. It looked like this one…

Anyway, Chris opened it and said, “What the heck am I going to do with a dang maker, Andy?”
The year after, he gave it back to Andy, still in the original packaging.

Every year at Christmas, it gets given to someone new, and the rule is that if you know what it is before you unwrap it, you don’t have to take it. As a result, people disguise it in all sorts of very large boxes. It’s been 20 years, and no one has yet opened that quesadilla maker.

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