You’ve probably crossed paths with a White Elephant gift exchange at one point or another. Sometimes, it’s born of convenience. Sometimes it’s born of office tradition. Regardless of origin, its hard to dispute its place at the forefront of the well-known wide world of “alternative gifting practices.”
For those unfamiliar with the practice, it consists of a group of people who bring in a bad/campy/funny gift and pool them together. Over a series of rounds, people “steal” gifts from the pool and then each other, until the gift lands on a final owner (usually the third “stealer”). Rules can vary, but that’s the gist. Invited to a last-minute White Elephant exchange? These funny gifts will be the talk of the exchange.
But where does its name come from? In all your years of taking part in the practice, you’ve never seen someone actually receive an albino pachyderm.
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 6-12 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. The origin story seems to be apocryphal, though. 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.
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 some crowd-pleasing gift ideas if you find yourself at a last-minute gift exchange.