White Elephant Gift Exchange

two people exchanging a gift in front of a Christmas tree

Written by KS

December 20, 2021

We’re in the season of mistletoe, Christmas music, and decked halls, which could only mean one thing.  The dreaded, or maybe not so dreaded, White Elephant gift exchange.  It all depends upon one’s perspective, I suppose.  Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, and White Elephant gift exchange.  They basically all mean the same thing, because they accomplish the same purpose:  A gift exchange at a party.  But first let’s uncover their origins, then how to play.  And finally, discover if it’s a dreaded, overinflated, or fun tradition.

Origins of White Elephant Gift Exchange

group of elephants in the desert

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Theory One on the History of the White Elephant Gift Exchange

There are a couple of legends, on the history of the White Elephant gift exchange, that are possibly as old as the game itself.  And this game is popular in most of the U.S.  But the first theory says that the king of Siam, now Thailand, gave a white elephant to anyone he disliked.  Though the actual elephant has more of a ruddy, pink complexion.  And the story goes that white elephants were so rare and very expensive to take care of.  Additionally, white elephants were very revered in Thai culture, that the recipient couldn’t refuse it.  But neither could the elephant be given away, nor put to work.

However, it’s because these animals were, and are, so revered that this is nothing more than myth.  Rita Ringis in her book, Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art, and Reality, affirmed that no monarch in Siam would have given away white elephants.  White symbolizes purity.  And white elephants have been in royal ceremonies for hundreds of years.  Thus, in Thailand, or ancient Siam, the white elephant rightfully belongs to the king.

elephant on a circus tent

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Theory Two on the History of the White Elephant Gift Exchange

The second legend, regarding the history of the White Elephant gift exchange, involves Phineas T. Barnum, from Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Sometime during 1884, after much expense and effort, P.T. Barnum acquired a white elephant from Siam to join his circus.  But the spectators in both England and the U.S. weren’t impressed with his white elephant, because it was ruddy.  Not pure white, like they expected, so the story goes.  Therefore, his newest purchase became extravagant and useless.

Now there’s a lot of truth to this version of events with P.T. Barnum and his ‘not-white-enough’ elephant, Toung Taloung.  Since Barnum made a lot of money passing off scams and counterfeits as real, it was ironic when his genuine white elephant wasn’t treated as authentic.  And the author of Race and the White Elephant War of 1884 at least believes that this legend is where we get the White Elephant gift exchange.  Because, in the 1800s, ‘white elephant’ became synonymous with anything useless or burdensome.

Origins of Yankee Swap and Dirty Santa

Even though Yankee Swap and Dirty Santa are similar to White Elephant gift exchange, they aren’t exactly the same.  For one, the histories are definitely different.  However, no one knows when or how Dirty Santa came about.  Nevertheless, Dirty Santa is generally known in Southern states, while Yankee Swap is popular in New England, as expected.

The most well known history of the Yankee Swap supposedly goes back to the Civil War when prisoners would be traded.  Some say generals would trade prisoners, with enemy generals or leaders, around the holidays and make a game out of it.  Also, the term itself dates back to the 19th Century.

Another theory about the history of Yankee Swap is around the early 20th century when New Englanders would trade silly gifts at market.  New Englanders are referred to as Yankees, and immigrants witnessed them exchanging these gifts.  Even today Yankee Swap is played throughout the world, not just New England, making this a plausible theory.  But regardless of the origin, ‘swap parties’ started making rounds in the papers in the early 20th century.  And the descriptions of the gift exchange weren’t too far off from what we have today.

Variations on the Rules: Universal Game Plan

person's hands wrapping gifts

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Since there are as many different ways to play the games as there are names, we’ll start with what they have in common:

  • Everyone who’s playing must bring a wrapped present, typically under an agreed dollar amount
  • Everyone draws a number, establishing the order of turns
  • And when it’s a person’s turn, they can pick a new gift or take one from someone else
  • Then when the game ends, everyone has a gift

What the Differences are in the Games

The main distinction is how ‘picking,’ ‘taking,’ or ‘stealing’ a present from somebody else works.  Both White Elephant gift exchange and Dirty Santa are alike, because the stealing method literally involves stealing.  Which means, before a person opens a present from the table, they have to decide to either open a new gift, or steal one that’s already been opened.  If they steal, their turn is done.  And now the person who was stolen from has to open a new present or steal one.

three people sitting on or by a couch and Christmas tree, exchanging Christmas gifts

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Yankee Swap is a little unusual since the ‘stealing’ process is actually swapping.  Additionally, there’s less risk involved, because the player can open a present from the table first.  Then, after they see what they’re getting, they can decide to end their turn, by keeping the gift.  Or they can swap it for another person’s gift.  At the end of Yankee Swap, trading or swapping of gifts is expected and completely OK.

I personally have never played Yankee Swap.  But I have played both White Elephant and Dirty Santa.  However, with that said, only White Elephant gift exchange had a theme.  At least the times I played.  And you can probably guess that the theme was silly, useless gift.  Since living in Oklahoma I learned to play Dirty Santa.  It was also here that I realized it was similar to White Elephant.  However, the gifts are much nicer, so attending one of those parties is more enticing to begin with.

Dreaded, Overinflated, or Fun

So here’s my conundrum, and maybe you can relate.  Each Christmas my office has a Dirty Santa party, where we get a gift to exchange or steal, whatever you want to call it, for ~ $20 – $25.  And I can NEVER ever find a gift for that amount.  So I typically spend more.  Sometimes a lot more, other times just a little bit more.

lightbulb in an idea bubble on a blackboard

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However, this year I had the most difficult time finding a gift at all, that I was on the brink of just bringing cash and calling it good.  My issue this year was that I had no idea what I wanted to buy, whereas in years past I at least had an inkling of what I wanted to get.  (I suppose this is why themes are a great idea.)  But rest assured, I eventually found a gift for this year’s Dirty Santa.

But why would I refer to the game as dreaded?  I suppose because I was out of ideas.  And I don’t like giving people mundane things; I like to put thought into gifts.  Though I was fresh out of any inspiration.

Dirty Santa Gifts of the Past

I’m not going to suggest a list of White Elephant gifts to get for your party; the sites I looked at on the internet didn’t help me out.  Most everything for the price point would have to be ordered.  Although, there wasn’t a guarantee that the item would get to me in time.  So, like I said, it didn’t help.  But below is a list of Dirty Santa gifts that I’ve given and received.

wooden cake stand with glass dome

  • Starbucks thermos and coffee
  • Gray knit beanie from Hobby Lobby
  • Numerous blankets and throws
  • Acrylic pours on canvas
  • Custom coasters
  • Tea and honey from Republic of Tea; coffee and a coffee mug
  • Marvel DVD with snacks to go with it
  • Cash
  • Gift cards
  • And this year: a beautiful cake stand with glass dome

If your gift exchange doesn’t have a theme, and you find yourself uninspired, please feel free to use my list of Dirty Santa pasts.  For the most part the items are easy to come by.  And most of them fit within the $25 limit; most, but not all.  I sincerely hope your White Elephant, Dirty Santa, or Yankee Swap is filled with fun.

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