Welcome to December – a month of anticipation filled with twinkling lights; cookies and peppermint-flavored drinks; shopping adventures; and maybe even a snow day or two thrown in for good measure. As we find ourselves beginning the season of holiday cheer, there are sure to be gift exchanges planned with friends, and the hottest gift swap this year is the White Elephant gift exchange.
What is the White Elephant gift exchange? Well, first – what isn’t it? It isn’t a gift swap where you hunt for the perfect gift for someone. Oh no, quite the contrary. The White Elephant gift exchange is a holiday game with loads of entertainment, where participants vie for the quirkiest of gifts. Are the gifts useful, you ask? No, not likely. They’re often weird and downright cheesy, but useful isn’t often how a White Elephant gift would be described. More likely, gifts are based on a theme, such as requesting that you bring a gift item that begin with a certain letter (imagine gifts starting with the letter “A”, such as apples, an afghan, an air freshener, artichoke dip, or a model airplane).
For the uninitiated, if you’re attending your very first White Elephant gift exchange this year, be prepared for some friendly competition with your fellow attendees. You see, not only does the exchange come with a theme, but it also comes with playing rules, and strategy for taking home the best gift of the pile (google “white elephant strategies”). The guidelines for the gift swap are listed below:
#1 – Bring a wrapped gift and set it on the gift pile for all to see.
#2 – Draw names to determine the order by which gifts are selected.
#3 – Gather around the pile of gifts.
#4 – Player one selects a gift and opens it for all to see.
#5 – Each subsequent player has a choice to open a new gift or steal one that’s already been opened. If a player steals a gift, then the person with whom the gift was stolen gets the chance to open a new gift or steal someone else’s gift. If a player opens a gift, then move to the next player.
#6 – Caveat – some hosts limit the number of times a gift can be stolen (three is the common number of times a gift can be stolen before it’s locked to a player). In addition, most hosts limit a gift to be stolen only once per turn, meaning if someone steals your gift, you cannot steal it right back (you would have to open a new gift or steal one).
#7 – There are a variety of ways to end the game. One popular game-ending rule says the game ends when the last gift is opened. Alternatively, and maybe a bit more excitedly, after all players have had a turn, the first player can choose to swap their gift with someone else, or keep their gift. If swapped, then the person whose gift was taken also gets to swap, and this continues until someone defers a swap because they want to keep their gift.
With the name White Elephant, this holiday tradition presents attendees with an array of bizarre and curious gifts, and unlike Secret Santa, there’s a fair share of scheming involved. The point of the game is to walk away with the best gift, but securing what you believe is the best gift of the party is less game theory and more personal preference and a dash of luck. This season, plan out the perfect gift you think everyone will fight over, plop your gift on the pile, and watch the stealing unfold.