The term “white elephant” came from the said custom of old Thailand (which was then called Siam) where kings would give white elephants to courtiers who they find annoying or rude. (Even then, passive-aggressive gifts are a norm!) White elephants are highly costly to maintain but are considered sacred, so people cannot get dispose of them.

Today, white elephants are gifts that require upkeep but are hard to dispose of. An unwanted piece of land and building, for example.

However, a white elephant gift exchange is something much different. White Elephant Gift Exchange is a game where a minimum of six people contribute a funny gift to a pool,  then the participants select a random gift and then open the gift. The gift is then open for a steal by another player. The purpose of this gift exchange game is to entertain the players and not to gain gifts.

The gifts are typically inexpensive and funny items, like a bad-smelling lotion or a hideous piece of jewelry. However, a nice gift can be added, making the competition for stealing gifts even more fun.

Who Typically Plays White Elephant Gift Party?

Typically, white elephant gift exchange is played by a corporate team… The whole accounting department, for example. This fact does not limit you from hosting a white elephant party with your friends and family, though.

How to Play White Elephant Gift Exchange?

1. Gather the participants! A minimum of six players should join the game to make it entertaining, which is the goal of the game. The more the merrier, but the bigger the crowd, the longer the game.

2. Set the gifting rule: should you buy something new or is re-gifting used items possible?

3. Buy/Select the gift and wrap it. I have ideas for a white elephant exchange party in a separate article.

4. Bring the gift to the party without letting others see what you brought.

Now the actual game begins.

5. Create draw lots. These are pieces of paper with numbers from 1 to the number of participants. Let everyone in the dame draw one piece of paper.

6. Person who got #1 starts. He chooses a gift from the pool of gifts.

7. Person #1 opens the gift in front of the participants to let them see what he got. Turn ends.

8. Person who got #2 starts his turn. He can either a) select a gift from the pool or b) steal another person’s gift. If he chooses to select a gift from the pool, turn ends. If he chooses to steal another person’s gift, the person who had his gift stolen now gets to choose a gift from the pool or steal another person. A gift cannot be stolen more than once per turn. Take note that in later turns, the turn can get longer. The rule here is that a turn does not end until a person chooses a gift from the pool.

9. Repeat step #8 with person #3 until the last person.

Variations to the White Elephant Gift Exchange

A. Gifts can have a common theme. “Something long and hard” or “A gift that boss might use” or “Weird candy that might give you a stomachache”.

B. Stealing gifts can drag too long at later turns, especially in bigger crowds. A limit can be set to stealing, for example, five times. In a turn, the fifth person who gets his gift stolen from him is required to choose a gift from the pool.

C. A gift can freeze. You can set the limit to how much a gift should be stolen during the whole game. For example, if you choose to freeze a gift at the sixth, the person who chooses to steal a gift the sixth time gets to keep the gift permanently.

D. The first person who had his turn was obviously at a disadvantage. To remedy this, an extra turn can be added at the end of the game where the first person is given a chance to exchange a gift with another person. This however puts the first person at a major advantage.

E. There is a variation where gifts will not be opened. This removes the advantage of the first person should you implement variation D.

What are some Great White Elephant Gifts?

In my next post, I will discuss my gift suggestions for a white elephant gift exchange.