What to Know When Hosting a White Elephant Gift Party

Person holding a white gift box wrapped with blue ribbon

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When you hear the words white elephant gift party, you may think of silly gifts and people passionately stealing each other's unwrapped gifts. The name refers to a gift exchange that typically happens during the holiday season and is organized among a larger group of people such as office colleagues or a big family.

The rules are simple—there's a price limit everybody needs to stick to and every gift needs to be wrapped. The game consists of each person opening a gift and having the option of stealing someone else's gift, but we'll tell you more about the party rules below. If you're thinking about hosting this fun holiday tradition this year, keep reading to learn about its origins, what the general rules are, and to gain inspiration for your own party!

What Is a White Elephant Gift?

A white elephant gift is exchanged at a white elephant gift party, sometimes also referred to as a Secret Santa, and is usually a funny, impractical or silly gift that has to be under an agreed upon price limit.

White Elephant Gift Exchange Origins

While it may seem like this gift exchange is a modern-day idea that started at office holiday parties, its origins actually date back to what was the Kingdom of Siam, which is now Thailand. According to tradition, the king gifted an albino elephant (which is where the term white elephant comes from) to those around him who displeased him. The gift was not a generous or kind one, quite the opposite, in fact. This animal required much care and wasn't allowed to be put to work, which meant financial ruin for the recipient of this unusual gift.

This style of gift exchange was first recorded as happening in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century when it was described as a swap party and resembled the white elephant gift exchange most people are familiar with today.

How to Host A White Elephant Gift Party

This gift exchange party typically takes place during the holiday season, whether it's in an office, a big family, or among a group of friends. If you want to host one this upcoming season, read the rules below, but make the party your own by adding a thematic element to it. Choose a theme that everyone's gift must follow, such as a food-related gift, something homemade, a holiday decoration, or even gift cards to every participant's favorite restaurant. If you host a book club, have everyone bring a wrapped book. If you're all foodies, tell guests to wrap their favorite ingredient (raw or otherwise!) to cook with—the possibilities are endless so get creative and tailor the theme to your group.

Rules and Expectations for Guests Attending a White Elephant Gift Party

The main rules for a white elephant gift party are that every person attending needs to bring a wrapped gift of a similar monetary value, perhaps under $10. Sometimes there is a theme assigned, but more often than not, guests attending can bring any gift of their choosing. To start the gift exchange, everyone must place their wrapped gift in one location such as the center of a circle if those participating are seated in a circle. Another way to play is for each person to draw a number before the gift exchange to determine the order in which people pick gifts.

Once all the gifts have been assembled and everyone is either seated in a circle or has drawn a number for their turn, it's time to get the fun started. The first person begins by choosing and unwrapping a gift, then the person who follows them can either unwrap a new gift or steal theirs. This pattern continues until every person has a gift, however, each gift can only be stolen twice or three times, depending on how many people are participating and how you want to play. It may seem unfair that the first person didn't get to steal someone else's gift, but they're actually the luckiest player of all because they get the last steal of the game once everybody has had their turn.