You’ve probably crossed paths with a White Elephant gift exchange at one point or another, but for those unfamiliar with the practice, it consists of a group of people who bring in bad/campy/funny gifts and pool them together. Participants take turns taking a wrapped gift from the pile—or “stealing” from someone who’s already picked one—until everyone has a present in front of them. Rules can vary, but that’s the gist. If you’ve been invited to a last-minute White Elephant exchange, consider gifting one of these funny gifts that’ll be the talk of the exchange.
But where does its name come from? In all your years of taking part in the practice, we’re willing to bet you’ve never seen someone actually receive an actual white elephant.
Legend has it that origin can be traced back the kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand.) The Siamese king would gift an actual white elephant to anyone who displeased him. Now, that might not seem like a bad thing, but the rare elephants were incredibly expensive to take care of, so whoever received one had to take on the financial onus of keeping a six- to twelve-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. However, the widely circulated 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. Learn the real history behind 10 more Christmas traditions.
So, if you like your alternative gifting practices to be based in reality, opt for the Dirty Santa or the Yankee swap. Or, just give people presents like a normal person—here are 28 Secret Santa gift ideas everyone will love.