Why They’re Called White Elephant Gift Exchanges

December 3, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

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.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sources: Wikipedia (White elephant, White elephant gift exchange, Lotus)

Entry filed under: History and Origins, Holidays and Traditions. Tags: , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. towelietowel  |  February 4, 2012 at 1:45 am

    I have been to a few white elephant parties and most of the time the gifts that were being stolen the most were anything out of the ordinary. Usually something you don’t see every day that is still somewhat useful. With a gift limit of only $10, I was amaze at all the weird and wacky things I could get while keeping my bank account happy. I found this online store while doing a Google search containing many things that are just perfect for a white elephant party. The link is below and hopefully this helps with your future white elephant gift parties!

  • 2. Bruce Christensen  |  July 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    I am a white elephant gift exchange aficionado and appreciate your well researched treatment of the white elephant history.
    I curate the headquarters for all things white elephant on the web at AlbinoPhant.
    If you or your readers need additional details on this party game or any of the many variations, they can find it here: http://www.albinophantblog.com/white-elephant-gift-headquarters/white-elephant-gift-exchange-idea-center/

    I hope that you find this helpful.


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