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What is a White Elephant Gift Exchange?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A white elephant gift exchange is a popular holiday party game in the United States, with many variations in name and game play. Generally, a party needs a minimum of six participants, although the larger the group, the more entertaining and protracted game play will be. The goal of the party is usually entertainment rather than gain, but it can result in vicious rivalries between players trying to get sought after gifts.

All attendees are expected to bring one wrapped gift. Traditionally, a white elephant present is something unusual, somewhat useless, or inconvenient. Trinkets, strange knick knacks, unidentifiable kitchen items, and the like are typical white elephants, and guests are asked to wrap them nicely and to leave no identifying markings on the presents. Part of the game is often a series of guesses as to who brought which present.

Usually, attendees draw numbers or cards to indicate player order. Strategic players try to end up somewhere in the middle of the game. The gifts are piled in a central location, and game play begins when one person opens the first gift. The contents are displayed to the room, and the next player’s turn begins.

The second player may either open a new present from the stack or steal the first player’s gift. If the second player takes the first player's white elephant, the first player must open a new present. A gift may only be stolen once a turn. After the second player’s turn is complete, the third player proceeds with the same options, and so forth until the game is finished.

Some parties impose a rule that a gift may only be stolen three times, requiring careful strategizing in the case of large multiplayer games. Sometimes, players band together to create advantageous trades amongst each other, although some exchanges forbid collaboration. In some cases, traditional gifts make their way back to white elephant parties year after year, and players can trace the history of lavish fur coats, hideous gravy boats, and other examples through the years.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon358351 — On Dec 10, 2013

Well, a mix of gifts is better, because if they are all dumb, then nobody would like to steal any other gift. They would all go to see what the next new gift would reveal. And vice versa: the people with the bad gift advertise theirs to get rid of it.

By clippers — On Dec 08, 2012
My family is really into the white elephant gift exchange and we go all out to shock, disgust, and in any way to offend each other with the gifts that we give. It is not uncommon to see a pair of dirty socks, a half gallon of spoiled milk and a mason jar filled with trashy sand.
By feasting — On Dec 06, 2012

I think that white elephant parties are more fun when you don't have a rule about how many times a gift can be stolen. This way, the game can go on for hours.

My family had a party last for a long time like that, and afterward, some people voted to institute the three-time-steal rule. In my opinion, the game ends too soon now.

By seag47 — On Dec 05, 2012

I've been to white elephant parties where some real prizes were thrown in with the oddities. You couldn't tell which ones were the best white elephant gifts and which ones were the strange presents, because all were wrapped elegantly.

One man brought some weird lumpy sculptures that his kid made in pottery class. The woman who opened that gift wasn't too thrilled, but the next person who had a turn opened up a $15 gift card to a local restaurant, and everyone tried to steal it.

I think these parties are more fun when you have at least a few good gifts mixed in with the duds. You never know which you will get until you unwrap it, and by then, it's too late.

By cloudel — On Dec 04, 2012

@JackWhack- The gift ideas for white elephant parties vary greatly. I think that originally, these parties were held by only the wealthy, so the gifts back then were all rather expensive, yet still pretty useless.

These days, we see a variety of gifts, ranging from funny to odd to things you actually might want to take home and keep. I've seen everything from pairs of Christmas boxers to fuzzy blankets at these parties, and you can bet that more people were after the blankets than the boxers.

By JackWhack — On Dec 04, 2012

I thought white elephant parties required gag gifts. I've never seen anyone bring an expensive fur coat as a gift, because none of the people I know could afford that.

By hsb250 — On Nov 28, 2010

Our parties include a rule that you have to wear anything clothing wise that you open. You can find more rules online.

By anon129041 — On Nov 22, 2010

I am seeing a ton of variations to the game under a bunch of different names. I saw a similar game called the left-right gift exchange which involves telling a story and every time the word "left" or "right" was used, that was the direction the gifts were passed. There are already-made stories out there that make it easy.

Also found a white elephant board game that has all you need for the game and they have added their own twist to the traditional white elephant gift exchange. It is called Wacky White Elephant.

By anon56306 — On Dec 14, 2009

Maybe you would like to post information about "White elephants." You are assuming that everyone knows what the term "white elephant" means. I think it means something rare, but not of much practical value. D.W. Bales

By partywedo — On Jul 31, 2009

Online variations of the white elephant party are now surfacing. These versions mimic most of the traditional rules and features, but put the party on steroids, using the new social tools found on the web.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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