The White Elephant Gift Exchange Game

Historians have determined the origins of the “White Elephant Gift Exchange Game” started around the end of the 80s. Hard to believe, before that, extended family gathered without any gift-giving and gift-getting agenda and co-workers weren’t forced to “buy something” for each other even though the true gift would simply be for the boss to say, “hey, everyone gets to leave 2-hours early this Friday.”

The White Elephant Gift Exchange Game has evolved and mutated over time, but there is, actually, only a few correct ways for this thing to work and then also only a few correct ways to participate.

The Original White Elephant

The very first white-elephant gift exchange took place between 12-people and worked like this.

  1. Bring a wrapped gift valued at approximately $25
  2. Write everyone’s name on a slip of paper and place in a hat (preferably a Santa hat)
  3. Put all the gifts in a pile in the middle of a circle
  4. Draw a name from the hat; that person takes a gift from the pile
  5. Draw another name from the hat; that person can steal the wrapped gift from the other person OR grab a gift from the middle.
  6. Draw another name from the hat; that person can steal either of the first two wrapped gifts OR grab a gift from the middle.
  7. When a gift is taken from the middle, it ends the round.
  8. Continue drawing names; each person can take any wrapped gift from anyone else
  9. Gifts can move no more than 3 times in a round
  10. Gifts can not be immediately taken back
  11. Gifts MUST remain wrapped until the very end
  12. When the last gift is taken from the middle, the game ends, and then everyone takes turns opening the wrapped gift they have

This was the genius behind the game’s origination. Total mystery. It involved strategy. The most desirable gift was based on weight, size, shape, or interesting wrapping paper. Everyone had as much chance at getting a gag gift as they had at getting a really, really good and thoughtful gift. Which brings us to the next essential part of the game …what to buy.

Gift Guide for White Elephant Games

  1. A gift should be good. Should be good for any gender and any age. This requires a little thought and planning (maybe 10-12 minutes of “thinking” about it and maybe an hour of shopping).
  2. A gift can be a gag gift. But, if you’re going with a gag gift, it had better be funny. Chia Pets are good. Something like the Potty Putter, Leg Lamp, or any Christmas movie classic thing can work.
  3. Lottery tickets mostly suck. See Rule #1 and the idea that you have to put “a little thought” into your gift.
  4. Booze shouldn’t be a gift. Because, really, anything you’re buying for around $25 is crappy booze. And not everyone drinks. It’s basically groceries, if you think about it.
  5. Gift Cards are OK but they do scream you don’t give a crap and didn’t put any thought into it, and you very possibly stopped on the way to the party (or ran out on your lunch hour) and just bought any gift card …like Applebee’s …a restaurant that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for everyone buying Applebee’s Gift Cards at the holidays for gift exchange games.
  6. Wait. No. Actually gift cards suck, too. Why don’t you just $25 cash in an envelope with note that says, “go buy you’re own effing gift.”  Ignore Rule #5 …gift cards suck. Seriously. Just put any effort into it or don’t play.

What each person brings is really important. If I’m spending $25 of my own money and putting “a little thought” into my gift, I don’t want to get three candles and a mug with hot cocoa mix inside as my gift. See above Rule #4 …cocoa is a grocery item.

Personally, I always bring a gift I want and spend the entire gift-exchange game trying to obtain the gift I brought, which creates a game-within-the-game, especially if you’re playing with the same crowd as you’ve played with previous years, because they’ll know whatever you brought is always good, and you always try to get your own gift, and so they’ll try to get the gift you’re going after, which means you have to seem very interested in a few gifts to throw them off the scent, but maybe you don’t even start going after the gift you brought until late, late in the game. Oh, the mind games.

Every other version of the game has been created by the people who hate the gift-exchange-game and how long it takes and how it means you have to put “a little thought” into it.

Other Dumb Versions

  • Gifts get unwrapped along the way:  The reason this version sucks is because of something I like to call the Curse of the Aztec Satchel (aka The Winter Scene Collectable Curse).  See, about a decade ago, I was involved in a version of the White Elephant that required all gifts be immediately unwrapped. This isn’t a bad idea if each gift is desirable. But, let’s say you’re the very first person to have your name drawn and you pick the first gift from the pile, and you unwrap a bland, grey, Aztec print book satchel as the very first gift. If this happens, everyone immediately knows, oh, Don has a horrible gift and Don can, if he wants, just leave the party because NOBODY is going after his Aztec print book satchel. So Don sits there for over an hour watching thoughtful and desirable gifts being opened and exchanged and oooh’d and aaaah’d over and Don just sits with his dumb, ugly satchel.  Now, let’s say the very next year, you (or Don) is the second person to take a gift from the pile and you (or Don) unwrap an ornament and a “winter scene” figurine featuring an Eskimo, Polar Bear, and Penguin that appear to be walking in the snow toward the North Pole (because there’s what looks like a street sign that says “North Pole this way”). Again, nobody wants that super cute wintry scene figurine, so you’re forced to sit there, again, for the second year in a row, holding the worst gift and watching awesome gifts going everywhere and then, when the game is over, everyone is talking about how great their gifts are, and all you have is wintry scene of figurines from Hallmark and you wonder if you can even put that somewhere in your house and if an Eskimo is politically incorrect, nowadays.
  • Gifts go Left, Right, Unwrap, or Exchange based on some roll of the dice:  If you use dice or some other “rules”, well, it means you don’t really like the White Elephant Gift Exchange Game at all, so don’t even do it. Just exchange gifts the old-fashioned way. Don’t waste your time or anyone else’s time.

I ain’t bein’ “bah humbug.” No. The White Elephant Gift Exchange Game is great. I love it. But there’s a right way and wrong way. Nobody says, “I like Monopoly, but not the part about how it takes so long to play and requires so many different tactics and my family modified it so in our version you go around the board one time, you deal out all the properties before you start, and at the end of the one-time-around, whoever collected the most rent is the winner.”  Who would do that? I met someone at a party and was told about this Monopoly mutation …I swear to you …so sleep well tonight knowing there’s a family out there, somewhere, playing Monopoly this way.

Some things get better with time. Some things don’t. The White Elephant Gift Exchange Game has definitely slowly eroded into some boring obligation by many and they, truly, don’t wanna do it. They remember how fun and funny it was, but some Scrooges didn’t like it and dreamed up ways to take all the fun out of it. If you’re a Scrooge, it’s OK. Just don’t bring a gift and don’t play.

Give the rest of us our fun and do it the right way.

One Comment on “The White Elephant Gift Exchange Game

  1. I agree with most of this. But making “ending up with your own gift” an objective borderlines on dick move. If it ends up that way, fine. But shouldn’t be done artificially. Just my two cents.

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