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The fascinating origin of white elephant gifts

It’s Christmastime! That means it’s time for our annual white elephant gift exchange party. Perhaps you’ve attended such an event. As I began to think about what gift to take to the exchange, I thought about the term “white elephant.”

How it works

Here’s how we exchange our white elephant gifts.

Each person brings one wrapped gift. Participants sit in a circle to see one another. All the gifts are placed inside the circle. One person chooses a gift from the group of presents and unwraps it. In turn, other participants may either choose a gift from the center of the circle or steal a gift that’s already been opened. Gifts may only be stolen twice. The exchange ends when everyone has a gift.

Gift examples

One year we opened a large, non-working television. Of course, no one wanted to steal it from us, so we had to take it home. Some gifts are so “great” that they make repeat appearances year after year at our annual party. It really is a lot of fun!

A prized possession

The idea of giving a white elephant gift is thought to have originated in ancient times in Southeast Asia—specifically Thailand (formerly known as Siam). White or albino elephants were very rarely found, as most elephants are gray to brown in color. When a white elephant was discovered, the King of Siam pronounced it “holy.” The sacred elephant immediately became the possession of the King.

Caring for such a highly prized animal meant providing it with special food and shelter. Worshipers came to offer honor and praise to the special pachyderm, and because the white elephant was considered to be holy, it could not be put to work like other elephants.

A gift or a burden?

The story goes, when the King of Siam became displeased with a subordinate, he gifted one of the special elephants to them. This often ended up bankrupting the white elephant’s owner. Providing special food and making sure the holy beast was available to worshipers was a costly undertaking. The elephant could not be put to work because of its special designation, so it was more a burden than a gift.

Contradicting opinions

Some historians do not believe this generally accepted origin of these gifts. They contend that a king would never give away a possession so precious and rare. Many cultures today still give the white elephant god-like status.

Modern-day white elephant gift

Today, a white elephant gift refers to an impractical or unusable item that is often difficult to dispose of. Other names for this type of gift exchange include Yankee swap or Dirty Santa exchange.

Have you ever received an unusual white elephant gift? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Did you know Amazon has an entire category dedicated to these funny gifts? And funny they are! Check them out.

Other articles from Gail’s How it Happened column:

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DNelson
1 month ago

For twenty-five years, two brothers-in-law in my hometown traded the same pants back and forth between them. The package wrapping makes the story though. Enjoy the story at:
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/panting-in-anticipation/

KellyR
1 month ago

My mother in law used to drive the whole family nuts with her directing the entire event to make sure everything was done properly. However we all patiently participated because that was her Christmas joy.

L Beal
1 month ago

My mother in law once gave us a cow mug with udders and all, it was ugly! Out of respect we kept it for a few years then after moving away we were more than pleased to use it as a white elephant gift.
There were lots of fun gifts at the party but for some reason that cow mug became the highlight of the evening and everyone wanted it.
My husband and I just looked at each other and laughed, and still laugh when we remember.
I miss theese old style parties, now a white elephant gift has to be purchased new before gifting. Takes away all the fun.

mimi
1 month ago

I attended such an exchange a number of years ago but with a slight twist. None of the gifts were allowed to be opened. Chosen or swapped out, all wrapped. Naturally, some givers had wrapped elaborately, some in brown paper…all adding to the mysteriousness of what was hidden inside. Once all of the attendees had a gift, everyone unwrapped at once. It added to the fun by not knowing what was inside, but by choosing the gift based solely on its outward appearance…”don’t judge a book by it’s cover” idea.

Dawn Adamson
1 month ago

I once found a ceramic statue of a white elephant at a thrift shop! You should of seen everyone fighting over that particular gift at our “white elephant” gift exchange 🤣

Karen Grace
1 month ago

We are doing a White Elephant gift exchange on xmas so this article is very timely and interesting!

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