Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Dreaming of a White Elephant Christmas

So much hype lately has been on sales that started after Thanksgiving last Friday, and even before then. But aside from going to Goodwill last Friday to look for a pair of pants, I stayed away from shopping that day. They had a discount that day, called "Blue Friday." By the time I got to the store, after 1PM, the clothes racks were ransacked and clothes were piled all over the floors and seats of the fitting rooms. I only found one pair I liked. I didn't even do any online shopping yesterday. And so few small businesses exist in my home town anymore, but those that do were blocked off on Saturday for the parade that night.

Thankfully, I don't have to do a lot of shopping for Christmas. Most of the Christmas parties I'll be attending will be "White Elephant" exchanges. One will be the party at work and another at the local bar.  My book club will be doing an ornament exchange at our December meeting, and I'm sure I can find an inexpensive one somewhere. They didn't say it had it be a new one. As for the others, I will probably look around the house for items I don't want anymore, such as the books I've already read and don't intend to keep any longer. And there may just be something else I'm willing to give as a present, thus not needing to buy one. But if I must buy one of the gifts, I can get something cheap since it's a "White Elephant" game.

My mom's family has also done the White Elephant game for Christmas, for about 20 years now, but skipped it last year. No word yet on what we are doing this year.

If you've ever wondered how the term "White Elephant" came about, here is some info:

What's the meaning of the phrase 'A white elephant'?

A burdensome possession; creating more trouble than it is worth.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A white elephant'?

White (albino) elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in Thailand and other Asian countries. Keeping a white elephant was a very expensive undertaking, since the owner had to provide the elephant with special food and provide access for people who wanted to worship it. If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.
white elephantReferences to Indian and Thai veneration of white elephants dates back to at least the early 17th century. The first reference in English to the idiomatic meaning of the term 'white elephant' comes in 1851 G. E. Jewbury's Letters, 1892:

"His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one's gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt."

Here are the basic rules for the game and some variations as defined by whiteelephantrules.com:  A White Elephant Gift Exchange is a popular Christmas event where people vie to walk away with the best present. It also goes by Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, and a plethora of other names. The White Elephant game is played by a lot of different rulesets – some dead simple and others confusingly elaborate. Here are the basic rules:

1. Each player brings one wrapped gift to contribute to a common pool. The gift exchange organizer should provide information on what type of gift people should bring.
2. Players draw names to determine what order they will go in. Alternatively, everyone can draw from a hat, or have their order set by the organizer prior to the event.
3. Players sit in a circle or line where they can see the gift pile. To make things easier, everyone should sit in the order in which they will take their turns.
4. The first player selects a gift from the pool and opens it. Make sure everyone can see the gift!
Santa Claus standing next to a stack of gifts, pointing5. The following players can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pool or steal a previous player’s gift. Anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can do the same – choose a new gift or steal from someone else.
To keep things moving along, there are a couple of limits on gift swapping:
  • A present can only be stolen once per turn, which means players who have a gift stolen from them have to wait to get it back.
  • After three swaps, the turn automatically comes to an end (otherwise things could drag on for a long time).
  • See “Popular Variations” below for other possible twists.
6. After all players have had a turn, the first player gets a chance to swap the gift he or she is holding for any other opened gift. Anyone who’s gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet). When someone declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.Note that for this last “extra” turn, the three-swap rule doesn’t apply. Players can keep swapping until someone decides to stand pat, or there are no other eligible people to steal from.
This is basically how I have seen it done at the parties I've gone to, although rather than drawing names, we draw numbers instead. 
And the variants mentioned on the site:

Popular Variations

While the above rules are as close to the “vanilla” version of the game as you can get, there’s really no right or wrong way to play. Over the years, many new ideas have been incorporated into the gift swap game, with the aim of keeping the game moving and/or making it more strategic. Here are some rules tweaks many people use:
Three Swaps and You’re Out. If you get stolen from three times during the game, you are out of the game and can no longer be stolen from.
Three Swaps and the Gift is Out. If a present gets stolen three times, it’s out of the game and the person who holds it gets to walk away with it.
No Extra Turn/No Extra Swapping. Some people don’t allow the first player to swap at the end. Or, if they do, the first person simply gets to swap once with no additional swapping allowed.
Poem/Story. Instead of following the same set of rules each turn, players follow instructions given to them through a Christmas-themed poem or story. One type of White Elephant story tells players to pass their gift left or right until the end, when they get to keep whatever item they’re holding.
Gift Themes. The organizer may require people to bring a gift that fits a certain theme. The most common one is a re-gift (i.e., an unwanted item that people have lying around the house). However, the theme could be anything – ornaments, coffee table books, candy, do-it-yourself crafts, etc.

In most of the times I've done the game, the "three swaps and the gift is out" rule has been used.  At work, however, we only allowed the present to be stolen once, just too keep the game from running all day long. 

I've never heard of the poem idea. Sounds a little weird, in my opinion.

One year my family did a themed White Elephant party, with "As Seen on TV Products" as gifts.

How many of you have done this?



  1. Not something I have heard of, much less played. It sounds complicated - but fun.

  2. I didn't know where the term white elephant originated from, fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Jamie.