Where Did the Popular White Elephant Gift Exchange Originate?
The white elephant gift exchange has become quite a popular staple at holiday parties and I'm wondering who we have to blame for it.
While there are slight variations, essentially what happens during a white elephant gift exchange is this. Participants bring a wrapped gift and in a randomly determined order, each person selects a gift to open. Each person has the option of opening a present, or "stealing" one that has already been opened.
Depending on how many people are involved and the specific rules for stealing, this "fun" gift exchange can go on for hours, sucking every bit of joy and good times out of a potentially fun holiday party. So how did this tradition get started?
One theory is that the white elephant gift exchange dates back several centuries to the legend of the King of Siam. According to legend, the king would give rare albino elephants to people in his court he was displeased with. It was hoped the people would be ruined by the cost of the animals' upkeep. Clearly, the white elephant exchange was not intended for good times.
Another theory traces the white elephant tradition to philanthropist Ezra Cornell in the 19th century.
Regardless of exactly how it started, the fact is, many white elephant gift exchanges are done completely wrong. Originally, white elephant gifts were something you had lying around the house that you wanted to get rid of, not something you would go out and buy.
The fun of the game was to see who could come up with the most outrageous white elephant gift -and who would end up with it at the end of the evening. Nobody came to the party with any expectation of going home with something worthwhile.
Regardless of whether your white elephant exchange is conducted with a maximum dollar amount or you go the "used" gift amount, I can offer a couple of suggestions that can help your exchange be less painful for guests.
If your exchange is based on purchased items, I would encourage everyone to try and come up with the most desirable gift they can find for $10 - or whatever dollar amount you decide. This can make the "stealing" part a lot more interesting.
If you are going with 'used' items, encourage people to come with the most outlandish and creative items possible - like a set of partial rolls of toilet paper, half-used kitchen spices, or a partially burned candle. A lot of people take this opportunity to rid their homes of one of those useless knick knacks gifted to them by some distant relative.
When it comes to conducting the gift exchange, one option is to have everyone select a gift and prior to the opening of any gifts, "stealing" may occur. But, once the presents are opened, there is no more stealing.
Some exchanges allow a gift to be stolen up to three times. This is just too much because it takes so much time and people will be losing their minds, their hair, and their sanity.
My advice is to limit the stealing to one theft per gift. This will help ensure the game moves quickly along and you don't end up with guests bolting for the door halfway through because they are bored out of their skulls.
Of course, another option is to not allow stealing at all. The gift you open is the gift you go home with.
Last but not least, frankly, the best option of all is to do your holiday guests a huge favor and skip the white elephant gift exchange altogether. If you really want the season to be jolly, this is one thing you can do to add to the Christmas cheer and truly make it the most wonderful time of the year.