Win the Holiday Season by Hosting a Lively, Larcenous White Elephant Gift Party

Stop stressing over the pressure to find “perfect” gifts. Instead, throw a white elephant party to let guests pick their own present (sort of).

By Nicole Shein | Updated Dec 19, 2022 5:22 PM

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Fess up: Are you guilty of regifting? People have been recycling unwanted gift items ever since the very invention of presents began, but we have Seinfeld to thank for the term itself. Can you believe it’s been nearly three decades since Jerry and friends popularized the term “regifter,” along with copious other additions to the lexicon like “yada yada,” “low talker,” and of course “Festivus”?

While most folks do their regifting discreetly, there’s one occasion when it’s de rigueur: the white elephant gift exchange. And in those instances, the tackier, uglier, sillier, weirder, or just plain worse your gift is, the better!

Not all white elephant parties encourage regifting, so your first task as a white elephant party host is to settle on the type of gifts you want your guests to steal from each other. Keep reading for all of the variations on and best ideas for a white elephant gift exchange.

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I’m Dreaming of a White…Elephant

There’s a wide variety of holiday party games in which participants “steal” gifts from one another, often to the chagrin of the victim and the chortles of everyone else. Some people know this activity as a Yankee swap; others call it dirty Santa. It’s also been named cutthroat Christmas, thieves’ Christmas, and steal-a-thon. Most commonly, however, it’s called a white elephant party. No matter what you call it, one of these swap parties is a guaranteed good time—and a great way to de-stress during the hectic holiday season.

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The (Purported) Origin of White Elephant Parties

You’ve heard of pink elephants, trippy animals that are visible only to alcoholics and Disney fans, but what do white elephants have to do with swapping silly or unwanted presents? One legend, which is probably apocryphal, explains it as a throwback to ancient Siam (now Thailand), where the king would present this extravagant gift to enemies and those who had displeased him.

So, how did such an over-the-top ostentatious gift that would have fit right in with the Neiman Marcus Fantasy Gifts catalog, come to symbolize a rejected present? Turns out that white elephants consume 500 pounds of food a day—an expense few could easily fit into their budget. Their care and keep was almost certain to bankrupt the recipients of the king’s backhanded beneficence. Unfortunately, no one was willing to swap their scented candle for the pachyderm.

How to Organize a Gift Exchange Game

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Once you’ve decided on a white elephant gift exchange for your annual Christmas cocktail soiree, family gathering, or nondenominational holiday office party, it’s smart to specify game rules in advance. That’s because there are dozens of different ways to approach this activity, as well as oodles of options for the gifts themselves.

All white elephant swaps start the same; participants bring a wrapped gift and then pick a number out of a hat. After that is when things can get complicated—or not.

Here’s the easiest way to play:

  1. Whoever drew No. 1 unwraps a gift and shows everyone else. (It’s best to sit in a big circle to facilitate everyone’s oohs, ahhs, gasps, and laughs.)
  2. The second player can either steal that item or unwrap a new present.
  3. When a person’s present is stolen, they then have an opportunity to steal from another player or grab another wrapped gift from the pile.
  4. Turn by turn, each player can purloin any previous gift from any other player or choose a new one.

To keep things manageable: Play by the rule that an item can only be taken once per turn. So, if Zelda steals a knitted beanie from Scott, Scott can steal anything except that beanie. He has to wait until someone robs him again, giving him an opportunity to snag the hat back from Zelda.

Another rule limits the number of total thefts to three. This can either look like the beanie only being stolen three times or only three thefts occurring per turn.

Variations on this theme abound. Some folks say the person whose gift is nabbed by another has to unwrap a new one, rather than stealing. Often, the player who went first gets the last laugh by swiping anything their heart desires, after which play can end immediately, or can continue until everyone is satisfied. And sometimes participants are encouraged to broker one-to-one trades after all is said and done.

It doesn’t much matter which rule set you choose; the important point is that everyone understands how the game goes. Be sure to read the rules aloud before swapping starts, and assign someone to act as a moderator to keep play moving along.

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Choose a Category of White Elephant Gifts

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What kind of white elephant gift to get? Partygoers will need some guidance, so give them parameters based on who’s coming and how well everyone knows each other. There are generally three types of gift categories: gag gifts, regifts, and new gifts with a spend limit. Before you decide, consider these ideas:

  • If you specify silly gag gifts, guarantee laughs instead of gaffs by giving a G, PG, or R rating to the acceptable gift options.
  • Host your Yankee swap after the holidays, and instruct people to bring the worst or weirdest present they received.
  • If work colleagues are asked to purchase the present, consider capping individual contributions at $15 or $20.
  • To add a fun element of challenge to any new gift party, set a $10 limit or restrict guests to shopping at a dollar store or thrift store.
  • Handmade gifts are great for circles of crafty friends.
  • Choose a theme, such as presents that are cooking related, animal related, extra tacky, suitable for self-care, antiques, or for sports fans. Office supplies, home-and-garden gifts, movie memorabilia, toys or games, and fashion accessories are excellent choices as well.

White Elephant Gift Ideas

Leave the throw blanket behind, and try these fun and unexpected gifts that anyone would be lucky enough to lift.

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Work-Appropriate Gag Gifts

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Practical Presents That Aren’t a Scented Candle

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All-Purpose, Super-Stealable Presents with Flair

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