White elephant gift exchanges can be fun and unpredictable. Here are some rules and guidelines if you’re participating in a white elephant this year!

Holiday party invitations seem to arrive daily and many include two dreaded words: gift exchange.

White elephant gift exchange, usually in the form of a game, are popular in offices, organizations, friendship groups and even large families.

What is a white elephant? Basically, it’s something you have on hand that you don’t want, but which would make a good gift for someone else. White elephant exchanges are a great way to get rid of nice gifts from well-meaning friends and family that you just can’t use.

The term “white elephant” originally meant a burdensome possession that is more trouble than it is worth.

The term came from a custom in ancient Thailand. If someone ran afoul of the king, he would give the offender a rare white (albino) elephant, considered holy. The recipient could be bankrupted by the animal’s expensive upkeep.

In the mid-20th century, “white elephant sales” were a common feature at synagogue, church and school bazaars. It’s hard to determine when white elephant exchanges became popular, though some organizations, including the Detroit branch of Ameinu, have been hosting gift swaps at Chanukah for decades.

Thailand’s ancient kings would punish a subject by gifting a holy white elephant, whose upkeep could bankrupt the recipient. via iStock

Today, most white elephant gift exchanges involve some variation of a game in which participants who don’t like the gift they receive can “steal” one they like more from another participant. Really good gifts are likely to be stolen several times during the game.

  • The game usually goes like this:
    Everyone at the party brings a beautifully wrapped holiday gift that fits the dollar amount the host announces ahead of time. The gifts are placed in a central pile.
  • Participants pick numbered slips of paper and the person holding the number 1 chooses a gift, unwraps it and shows it to everyone. The guest holding number 2 goes next and, if he or she likes the first gift better, can “steal” it from the previous player. Then that player chooses another gift from the pile.
  • Each subsequent player in numerical order chooses a gift and, after unwrapping it, decides whether to keep it or “steal” another already-opened gift. Those with higher numbers have more options of gifts to steal.
  • Because the first player doesn’t have the “steal” option, many groups decide to let that person steal from any of the other players at the end of the game.

In large groups, additional rules help keep things moving; for example, deciding that no gift can be “stolen” more than three times.

Vicki Salinger of Southfield said one year her Ameinu group did a variation on the traditional game by having everyone choose a gift without unwrapping it. Participants sat in a circle and listened to a story laden with the words “right” and “left,” passing their gift to the right or the left each time. At the end of the story, everyone kept the gift in hand.

Marie Slotnick’s most vivid white elephant memory is the one that got away at Beth Shalom Sisterhood’s Chanukah party. Someone else received a chain necklace with a white elephant pendant. “I kept trying to trade for it so that when someone asked me about it I could say, ‘I got it at a white elephant exchange,’” said Slotnick of Pleasant Ridge. “Boo hiss — it did not end up with me.”

Some hosts, aware not all gifts will be equally great, ask everyone to vote at the end of the exchange for the worst gift of the day. The “winner” gets a nice gift provided by the host.
If you’re stumped about what to bring, perennial favorites include nice picture frames and fancy edibles or potables. “Good gifts involve liquor, wine or chocolate,” said Sandy Gross of Oak Park.

And the most important advice? Be a good sport and remember it’s all in fun. If the gift you like gets stolen or you pick a dog of a gift that no one wants to steal, just laugh about it. You can always put it away for next year’s white elephant gift exchange.

Etiquette Guidelines

Respect the request to bring a gift of a certain value. Mandy Garver of Bloomfield Township remembers an organization’s white elephant gift exchange where one person received a couple of packages of fancy paper napkins. “They were nice napkins, but everyone was pretty shocked to see such a cheesy gift,” she said.

  • It’s OK to “regift” by giving something you received that you can’t use, but make sure it is “like new.” Something obviously used is a no-no.
  • Avoid anything political, sexual or religious (unless you’re in a group affiliated with a synagogue).
  • Wrap your gift beautifully.
  • Be sure to follow the rules of the game. Some hosts might specify all gifts should be gag gifts. If so, don’t bring something really nice.
  • Don’t bring items of clothing in a particular size or that won’t be of use to both men and women, unless it’s a single-sex gathering.
  • Don’t bring something with a promotional logo or advertising message.
  • Be aware of changing trends. Ten or 15 years ago, a set of beautiful notecards would generally have been welcomed. These days, few people use them.

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