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How to Survive a White...

How to Survive a White Elephant Gift Exchange

From the outside, they all appear the same. Some might be a bit larger than others, some a bit softer, but you never really know what you’re getting—until your number is called at a White Elephant Gift Exchange.

The best numbers to draw are the highest ones, especially if people with low numbers are shy, new to the game, or haven’t drunk enough wine. Those players won’t steal, taunt, or grab. They’ll gently open new gifts each time, yielding a crop of interesting choices by the time you step up—to steal, or choose an unwrapped gift. Here’s where the fun starts.
Sometimes people steal a gift because the first opener appeared to really like it. Some White Elephant participants call this great fun. Others think it’s rude. Don’t invite these people back again. Stealing should be encouraged, as it gets the whole festive holiday giving mood rolling. 

True veterans of the game sometimes open their own gift to draw interest, or be assured of getting something that won’t totally suck, while others approach the game like bad community theater actors, feigning disappointment drizzled with meager acceptance. “Oh darn. Diamond earrings. Again.”

When a potential stealer eyes their gift they might whisper comments like, “It says it’s made in Cambodia by mute orphans with no hands.” Followed by, “It’s definitely fake gold, guaranteed to turn your ears green, and hey, wasn’t this given by Susie? Didn’t they just have an outbreak of highly contagious whooping cough in her house?” Then they’ll sigh. “I guess I’ll have to suffer.”

But most of us aren’t that lucky. Instead of diamond earrings we get candles and coffee mugs, reindeer antlers for our cars and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. melamine cereal bowls. We’ve all been there. You open the box and pray someone out there collects frogs, or thinks pink is the new black, because God knows, you can’t use the thing you just opened and you’re not even sure you’d want to re-gift it to the mail lady.

According to Wikipedia, a white elephant is a possession of questionable value whose upkeep exceeds its usefulness, and is therefore a liability. Unfortunately at the parties I’ve been to no yachts or Manhattan penthouses surfaced. Apparently my friends find mallard duck boxes, strawberry body lotion, and vinyl lace Santa tablecloths liabilities.

A recent White Elephant party invite had me stumped. The price limit was $15–20 per couple. The theme: Trendy or Gag Gift. Trendy could pose a problem. Gag gifts were easy. But this was a couples party, some of whom I didn’t know well—people that could be insulted by my crude humor. I mulled it over for a while, wanting to use the huge can of baked beans we’d bought for another party as a joke. I thought about putting the beans, a cast iron skillet, a tube of petroleum jelly and some whiskey in a box and calling it The Brokeback Mountain Gift Pack. But I wasn’t sure.

A friend called and said she was giving cute snowman candleholders. I told her what I’d read on, that the perfect White Elephant gift is something lying around the house that you don’t want, usually a gag gift, not something desirable or necessary. Though I’m not sure cute snowman candleholders are either desirable or necessary. I suggested she wrap a bunch of almost empty booze bottles from her cupboard and label each with memory cards. This bourbon was from the UGA game where we met John and Sara and later conceived Baby Jimmy in the back seat of the Lumina. Enjoy!

She said she’d think about it.

Meanwhile, I still didn’t have my gift. I walked through warehouse stores, thrift shops, and antique marts. I thought about adult novelties and those great things you can only buy on TV. Maybe I’d duplicate last year, when I bought twenty lottery tickets, and slipped in a fake one guaranteed to win $20,000. I never heard how that panned out. Maybe the woman died of a heart attack and that’s why she didn’t come this year.

I wondered why I was wasting so much time on a gift I would never see again, and if I was smart wouldn’t even have to claim bringing. Whoever thought of this White Elephant thing anyway? If I lived in Thailand or Burma, I could see the whole elephant obsession, even India with their love for Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity. But this was America. More importantly this was the South, where folks revered Coca Cola, Nascar, football, and light beer, not elephants.

Two years ago I scored the best gift ever at a Bunko Christmas party. I definitely knew what I was looking at when I stole the bottle from a young mommy who said, “Oh good. I don’t drink wine.” Someone looked at the label, saw the Moet line and said, “Look, it’s not real Dom.”

“Oh, you’re right,” I said jumping on the bandwagon. “It’s fake, but that’s ok I’ll just use it for Mimosas.” The girls thought I was being big about my bunk gift, a real trooper.
Hours later I was home googling the vintage and could not find one for less than $125. This year that same bottle sells for more than $300.

But what was I going to bring to this couples party? I’d already raised the roof at the ornament exchange by creatively gluing Santa and a Nutcracker together in compromising positions, how could I top that?

Then I saw the perfect gift, marked 50 percent off, Today Only—a large white elephant statue with a green monkey on his back, hands over his ears.

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