Why They’re Called White Elephant Gift Exchanges
By Chad Upton | Editor
Among friends and co-workers, gift exchanges are popular, especially during the holidays. In the United States, a popular style of gift exchange is called a “White Elephant Gift Exchange.” I’ve done similar gift exchanges outside of the US where they don’t necessarily go by that name, but follow similar rules.
In fact, there are many variations of the rules, but basically, it involves bringing a fun or humorous gift for an anonymous person. In some cases, the rules allow other people to “steal” the gift or switch it for the gift they received. Regardless of the specific rules, I wanted to understand where “white elephants” fit in to these gift exchanges.
Historically, white elephants were sacred among Southeastern monarchs in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma (and still are in some areas).
This belief comes from a tale that Buddha’s mother had a dream the night before giving birth to him. The dream depicted a white elephant giving her a lotus flower, a divine symbol of purity. For this reason, it was thought that white elephants were sacred, and laws were made to protect them from labor.
Because white elephants couldn’t be put to work, their maintenance costs were out of proportion to their usefulness. Modern day white elephants include kitchen gadgets that seem useful, but take up useful space in your cupboards and rarely get used.
Of course, it’s not just about kitchen gadgets, it’s one time where gifts are encouraged to be inexpensive or even re-gifted for the entertainment of the gift exchange rather than the usefulness of the gift itself.
It is believed that this term got its more contemporary meaning from social gatherings as early as 1828. It became more widely known when it was featured in the 1975 King Family Christmas special.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons