White Elephant Gift Exchange

Christmas is a time for family and traditions, acknowledging the importance of someone in your life, and one way of doing that is by giving them a gift. The act of choosing a gift lets a person know how much they mean to you. But sometimes choosing a gift with this depth of decision-making can be awkward, worried that you'll send the wrong message or not knowing someone well enough to choose the right gift. And then there's the social obligations you may have during the Christmas season like team parties, office gatherings, book club, neighbourhood potlucks, your book club, social groups or extended family whom you don't know very well. Let's face it, some of these Christmas gatherings can be dreaded! Here's a game, with presents, that will enliven any Christmas social gathering, no matter the group.

The White Elephant Gift Exchange is a party game that can work with your co-workers, your team-members, housemates, community groups that you're a member of, and even your closest group of friends or family. It is the perfect party game for all of these scenarios! Its even been used in large family groups whose members are older and already have everything. This party game makes those large group gatherings more affordable, more eventful and definitely more fun. Give it a try, it may just become your new tradition!

History of the term, 'White Elephant'

Originating in the Asian countries of Thailand, Burma and Nepal, the tradition of the gift of the White Elephant has links to ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions. To be gifted a white elephant, literally, was to be gifted a magnificent beast who was both sacred and expensive to house, beautiful and rare, yes, but not very practical. Rulers would receive a gift such as this, and a King or monarch would face great expense in keeping a white elephant healthy and housed, so while this gift would bestow great honour and respect, it would also prove a dilemma for the King.

It is also told that a King or monarch could gift a white elephant to someone else, and stories abound of rulers doing so without the kindest heart, to those people who had caused them grief, irritation or outright disobedience towards the ruler. The gift of a white elephant was used to send a message - that the recipient had displeased the ruler - and the bestowing would most likely cause the financial ruin of the recipient of such a gift. Hence the gift of a White Elephant came to be known as a gift with two meanings.

Early 20th Century

Fast forward a few centuries, across the ocean to North America, and the term White Elephant came to be a familiar phrase in traders' street language in the early unorganized business days of the hustle and bustle of New York City. There's even evidence of PT Barnum of circus fame, purchasing a white elephant for one of his tours, only to have the public claim that really the white elephant was pink, and patrons felt cheated from the experience. Yet PT was stuck with the elephant and all of the expense it entailed.

In the mid-20th century, the tradition of the white elephant morphed into the name used for fundraising initiatives that sold other people's castoffs to raise money for an institution or organization. In the church-going era of the 1950s-1970s in North America, most churches held fundraiser sales that brought the community together to raise funds for building maintenance and/or renovation, youth and religious or charity outreach programs. Besides the traditional bake sales and raffle sales found at Spring and Fall church fairs, White Elephant Tables became widespread, with parishioners donating their unwanted belongings, intending for these items to be purchased by someone else to raise money for the Church.

Many a church-volunteer spent their days sorting, cleaning and pricing these unwanted knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, poorly purchased or out-of-favour household goods to make them attractive to purchasers, who may or may not have found them useful, but paid for items anyway as a disguised donation in support of their church.

The tradition of turning the goods found on these White Elephant tables into the genesis of a model for Christmas party gift exchanges seems to have begun in New York City in recent decades and spread throughout Canada and the US. Used as a group ice-breaker for people unfamiliar with one another, a team-building event amongst office workers, or a fun, inexpensive event amongst friends or family, a White Elephant Gift Exchange has come to be a light-hearted and fun way for people to spend some time together, exchanging Christmas gifts that aren't too personal yet bring joy, laughter and some competition between all those who participate.

The Game

The goal of the White Elephant Gift Exchange is to entertain the group, not to walk away with the best present! The success of this is dependent on the rules that the organizer sets, from price limits to style of gift. There is no right or wrong way to play this game, and there are hundreds of variations that can be adopted to suit the crowd. Sometimes this game is called Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa, but all variations agree that this is a game will bring shouts and energy to any Christmas party.

Everyone brings a present, everyone leaves with a present, and the hilarity that ensues is sure to make your Christmas party one to be remembered far beyond the water cooler! Now let's have a look at how to organize a White Elephant Gift Exchange and some of the rules.