White elephant gift exchange

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A white elephant gift exchange[1][2] or Yankee Swap[3][4] is a party game where white elephant gifts,[5] are exchanged for Christmas. The goal of a white elephant party is usually to entertain rather than to gain.

The term "white elephant" refers to an extravagant but burdensome gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam gifting rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, that they might be ruined by the animals' upkeep costs. The term white elephant refers to a gift whose maintenance costs exceed its usefulness. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians,[6] one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.[7][8][9]


A man selects a taken gift, while its previous owner is reluctant to relinquish it.

In its most basic form, the game rules[10] are as follows: Each participant supplies one wrapped gift. The gifts are placed in a central location, and participants determine in which order they will take turns selecting them. The first person opens a wrapped gift, and the turn ends. On subsequent turns, each person can open a new present or gets the choice to "steal" another person's gift. When a person's gift is stolen, that person can either choose another wrapped gift to open or can steal from another player. The game is over when the last person goes. Generally, it is recommended to have at least six participants for the gift exchange party. With a larger group, game play may be more protracted.

White elephant parties have been known to result in playful rivalries between players trying to get sought-after items. Sometimes white elephant gift swaps turn into the trade of spirits.


Since the process of stealing can prolong the game and can confer distinct disadvantages to certain places in the order of play, multiple variations have arisen.

  • To speed up the multiple steals variant, there is often a certain number of steals allowed per turn. For example, after the third gift on a turn is stolen, the fourth player may be required to open a wrapped gift. An exception may be made for the last round (after all gifts have been opened), allowing an indefinite amount of swapping (see below). Most of the time, variants that allow multiple steals end without completing the game since it becomes too difficult to track the game context.
  • A certain gift may be particularly sought after, prolonging the game (almost indefinitely). To address this, two related variations have been widely adopted: First, no gift may be stolen more than once per turn. However, this gives a distinct advantage to the final participant. Because of this, a second common variation states that after a gift has been stolen a certain number of times (usually three) it is "frozen" (or "dead" or "safe") and cannot be stolen again.
  • Another popular variant no longer places a limit on the number of times a gift can be stolen but instead limits the number of times a person can be stolen from. Once the person reaches that number, the last gift they choose is automatically frozen to them. The frozen person can no longer be stolen from or steal from anyone else. The gifts themselves can circulate as often as possible unless frozen to someone, but a person cannot steal back the gift that was just taken from them.
  • Since the first player is the only one without the option of seeing any unwrapped gifts, some variations allow this player to take one final turn after all gifts have been opened and swap with any "unfrozen" gift.
  • One variation (usually only for games with serious gifts) is to mark gifts as suitable for males, females, or both, to guide people into selecting a more appropriate gift.
  • Another variation is to leave all the gifts wrapped until the end. Stealing is still allowed (up to a predefined number of times) but must be done while the gifts are still wrapped. In this case, there is no stealing after the wrapping comes off.
  • Another option is to keep the gifts anonymous. In this case, standard-sized boxes may be used, or gifts may at least be wrapped inside-out (the white portion of wrapping paper showing) in order to help maintain the anonymity.
  • Since only desirable gifts will be stolen, people with less desirable gifts may be essentially out of the game after opening one. One variation to rectify this is to allow no stealing during the opening of gifts but to have a subsequent stealing round in which the host secretly sets a timer, and everyone in the group takes turns trading their gifts with those of another. (Players may pass their turn.) This continues until the timer rings, at which time each player keeps what is in their hand.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 12/04/2013 12:30 pm EST (2013-12-04). "Secret Santa Rules: How To Make Your Gift Exchange Go Smoothly". Huffingtonpost.ca. Retrieved 2013-12-18. 
  2. ^ 10/01/2014 12:30 pm EST (2014-10-01). "White Elephant Gift Exchange". sassysanta.com. 
  3. ^ Kurtz, Kelly (2013-12-13). "LIVING WELL IN OUR COMMUNITY | www.leominsterchamp.com | Leominster Champion". www.leominsterchamp.com. Retrieved 2013-12-18. 
  4. ^ Anonymous (2013-11-29). "CAPE ANN SYMPHONY: 'Yankee Swap' will raise money for Red Cross - Gloucester, MA - Wicked Local Gloucester". Wickedlocal.com. Retrieved 2013-12-18. [dead link]
  5. ^ "White Elephant Gifts". Collection of white elephant gifts for the exchange. WhiteElephantGifts.com. September 2016. 
  6. ^ Larsen, Derek; Watson, John J. (September 2001). "A guide map to the terrain of gift value". Psychology and Marketing. 18 (8): 889–906. doi:10.1002/mar.1034. 
  7. ^ Dots and Dashes: Interesting Stories of Progress in the Telegraph Industry, Volumes 3-20, Western Union Telegraph Company, 1927
  8. ^ Ruth, Julie; Otnes, Cele C.; Brunel, Frédéric F. (March 1999). "Gift Receipt and the Reformulation of Interpersonal Relationships". Journal of Consumer Research. 25 (4): 385–402. doi:10.1086/209546. 
  9. ^ Dryland, Ann (October 1968). "Review". British Journal of Educational Studies. 16 (3): 336–7. JSTOR 3119303. 
  10. ^ elephantrules 12:30 pm EST (2016-09-27). "White Elephant Rules". elephantrules.com. Retrieved 2016-09-27.