What Is a White Elephant Gift Exchange?
Learn the origin of this classic game and explore 15 awesome gift ideas to ensure your present is the one everybody fights over.
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
White elephant gift exchange basics
From office parties to large family gatherings, white elephant gift exchanges are a fun-filled way to turn exchanging presents into a game. What is a white elephant gift exchange? It typically consists of a group of people who each bring one wrapped awesome/bad/campy/funny gift (that could go to anyone in the group) of similar value and place them into a single, anonymous pile. Participants then pick a number from a hat (hint: the higher the number, the more options you’ll have), and take turns choosing a gift from the pile—or “stealing” from an earlier participant who’s already picked—until everyone has a present in front of them. The rules can vary a bit, particularly as it relates to how many times a popular gift can be stolen, but that’s the general gist. Thankfully, most participants find the whole process hilarious and have a good sense of humor about what gift they end up with, however one or two will inevitably voice their disappointment when stuck with a less-desirable gift. These 25 thoughtful gifts for coworkers are another smart place to start looking for ideas.
The origin of white elephant gift exchanges
So, what is a white elephant gift, exactly? Legend has it that the origin of this popular game can be traced back to the kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand). The Siamese king would gift an actual albino elephant to anyone who displeased him. Now, that might not seem like such a bad thing, but these rare elephants were incredibly expensive to take care of—so whomever received one had to take on the financial burden of keeping a 6- to 12-ton mammal alive and happy. The white elephant was also a revered symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, so you couldn’t get away with simply letting it go or regifting it. And, seeing as they were considered to be sacred animals, they weren’t allowed to be put to work. So, as you see, it wasn’t a gift at all, but an extravagant burden meant to ruin the recipient’s finances.
Of course, like any legend, this origin story could very well be fictitious. In Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art, and Reality, author Rita Ringis posits that no Siamese monarch ever did this and would never consider doing this because ownership of a white elephant was an incredible honor. This may leave you wondering where other holiday traditions come from—don’t miss the history of 10 favorite Christmas traditions.
Beer belly fanny pack
Amazingly, fanny packs are back in style and all the rage—but you’ve never seen one quite like this. The Dad Bag fanny pack by Bamomby gives the illusion of a hairy man’s beer belly, which is sure to make anyone giggle. But it’s not just funny, it’s also useful: Stash your keys, cell phone, wallet, and, of course, a few beers in it for your next outing. Peruse these additional 20 funny gag gifts for the whole family, for more inspiration.
We can’t escape stress, but we can find healthy ways to let off some steam. The Dammitt Doll is a stress toy for adults that’s far less karma-inducing than a Voodoo doll. Don’t let the fact that it’s handmade fool you—it’s durable enough to sustain a mean squeeze and even a major blow. Go ahead and beat it into your desk at work or the kitchen table at home—before you know it, you’ll be laughing instead of swearing.
Hot dog toaster
Mmmm, who wants hotdogs? Well, there’s no need to fire up the grill when you have a retro pop-up hot dog toaster by Nostalgia. This bad boy toasts up two hot dogs and two buns at the same time. But wait, there’s more! Adjustable settings allow you to cook everything to your preferred level of doneness and the drip tray slides out for easy cleanup. Once the hotdogs and buns pop up, follow these 15 ways to make a boring hot dog delicious.
What’s everyone’s favorite Emoji? Well technically, this is the nation’s most popular emoji. But we’re pretty sure the poop icon is a close second! It just looks so happy—and that’s exactly how your recipient’s feet will feel in their new poop Emoji slippers. These unisex plush puppies are soft and warm, and the anti-skid bottoms will keep you from slipping in the bathroom. Plus, just think of all the camera-worthy moments you can have after training your dog to bring these to you.
It’s all too easy to lose track of how much (or little) you’ve consumed each day. The H20Coach is a half-gallon sports water bottle made of BPA-free plastic that has encouraging time markers and motivational phrases to keep you on track. The comfortable carrying strap means your lucky recipient can take it anywhere they go. Those who are serious about hydration will also want to check out these smart water bottles.
Learn to live in the now with disappearing artwork. The mini Buddha Board is a relaxation tool that encourages creative expression, being in the moment, and letting go—all with water, a bamboo brush and a clean slate. With each brushstroke, your recipient’s worries are transformed into a work of art and then sent off into the universe as the water dries and the image disappears. Poof!
Honest Abe never looked so…green! After planting the seeds in this decorative pottery plant, you’ll enjoy full plant growth in one to two weeks—after that, feel free to style any way you please.
After an exhausting round of white elephant exchanging, a nice relaxing bath sounds like nirvana. Handmade premium quality bath bombs made from organic ingredients make every bath look and feel more luxurious. Let aromas like Mango-Papaya Island, Eucalyptus Wave, and Blossom Euphoria melt your troubles away—plus, the stunning colors won’t even stain your tub.