When planned well, a white elephant gift exchange can be the highlight of your holiday party. There's suspense, laughter and silly competition involved, and you can enjoy this party game all while eating Christmas cookies. What's not to love?
And yet...any time you get a group of people together to play Christmas games, there's a possibility that someone's inner Grinch will come out. White elephant is a popular game with a lot of possibilities for variation. Make sure you're ready to take charge when it's time to exchange gifts so you don't waste time going back and forth about all the different ways people are used to playing the white elephant game.
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Planning your white elephant gift exchange
It's up to you to set some guidelines for participants to follow when they're selecting gifts to bring to the party. Gift exchange participants need to know three things from you:
- Should they bring their gifts wrapped? (Yes, and without any name tags!)
- What's the price limit? (Anywhere from $15 to $30 is typical.)
- What kind of gifts are they expected to bring? Is this truly a "white elephant" exchange, or are you envisioning more of a "Yankee swap" exchange?
The names "white elephant," "Yankee swap" and even "dirty Santa" are sometimes used interchangeably. But the names do have slightly different implications, so people might have different preconceived notions about what kind of gifts they should choose.
Historically, a white elephant party is about exchanging gag gifts or funny gifts. The name refers to kings of Thailand giving sacred white elephants as gifts; while an honor, such a gift would really be a huge burden for anyone who then had to provide for the animal. Yankee swap gifts would tend to be more useful and traditional gifts. Whether you want people to bring silly gag gifts or sincere ones, make sure guests understand what the general vibe of the exchange is going to be.
For an example of how not to plan a holiday gift exchange, watch the season two Christmas episode of The Office. Michael Scott's decision to turn a secret Santa exchange into a Yankee swap throws the Dunder Mifflin Christmas party into chaos. (But Pam gets her teapot!)
Playing a white elephant exchange
It's your gift swap, so you get to make the rules. (Read on for common variations to the gift exchange game rules.) But here's an overview of the basic way white elephant is played.
- Guests put their wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree or in another designated spot when they arrive at the party.
- The organizer puts numbered slips of paper in a hat—one for each person participating. Have everyone draw numbers when you're ready to start opening gifts.
- The person who pulled the paper slip with the number one chooses a gift at random and opens it. (The buyer of the gift will typically speak up and take credit.)
- Whoever gets the number two can either take the first player's unwrapped gift or choose a new gift from under the tree. If the second player does steal their gift, the first person chooses a new wrapped gift.
- As the game continues, each new player can choose from any of the gifts that have already been opened. The last player can take the last wrapped gift or steal anyone's gift. Whoever gets their gift stolen last is stuck with the final wrapped gift.
Need white elephant gift ideas?
Don't forget, you're going to need a great gift of your own if you're going to participate in the game! Aim for something that's a little silly but ultimately fun or useful to have.
For example, choose kitchen gadgets with a very specific purpose, such as an indoor s'mores maker, a mini waffle iron or molds for making dumplings. Whimsical home decor is also a good option; think of things like a throw blanket that looks like a giant pizza or Bob Ross coffee mugs. Retailers like Uncommon Goods, Spencer's Gifts and Amazon are all good places to shop for white elephant gifts.
Variations on the rules
For such a simple concept, there are a lot of ways to put a twist on a holiday gift exchange. These are just some ideas for variations on the game rules.
- Play dirty Santa by allowing (or even encouraging) multiple gift steals per round. With dirty Santa rules in place, someone whose gift gets stolen can steal a gift from someone else instead of taking another wrapped gift. Typically, the rules say that only three steals can happen in any given round; otherwise, the game could drag on forever.
- Choose a theme for gifts. Ask everyone to bring something that starts with a certain letter or to bring something that they already own but want to get rid of.
- Eliminate the stealing element altogether if you're short on time. Put a number on each gift. Have people draw numbers from a hat and unwrap the gift corresponding to the number they pulled.
A gift exchange party could be one of the highlights of your holiday season, assuming you're clear on the rules and ready to keep the game moving. Even if you end up with a boring white elephant gift, you'll enjoy the process!