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.