Grab your favorite wrapping paper and get ready for the holiday season! As we prepare to spread Christmas cheer, we’re also thinking about our favorite holiday games to play, one of which is the classic White Elephant gift exchange. This popular Christmas event is a blind gift exchange that involves people “stealing” gifts from each other in order to walk away with the best present. This can include anything from crazy socks or pens to useful kitchen items or even a potted plant!
Below we’ll cover the basic rules of White Elephant as well as some useful tips to throw your own gift exchange party. We’ve also included a bonus section on gift ideas, so you won’t have to scramble for last-minute presents!
White Elephant Rules
The White Elephant game has many variations and is played by many unique sets of rules. Some of these can be quite simple, while others get creative and elaborate. We’ll go over the basic rules and you can add your own twist to them when you throw your party.
- Each person brings one wrapped gift: Whoever organizes the party should specify what kind of gift people should bring so they all are of similar value.
- Players draw a number to decide the order: The order can be set by the organizer before the game begins or each player can pull a number from a hat.
- Players sit around the gift pile: Once it’s time to play the game, it might make it easier to have players sit in the order in which they will take turns, though it’s not required.
- Game play:
- Player #1 starts: The player who drew the first position starts the game off and picks a gift from the pile. They can either choose to unwrap the gift then or wait until the end.
- Players #2 and up choose a gift or steal: The rest of the group can choose to either pick a gift from the remaining pile or steal a previous player’s gift. If a player gets their gift stolen, they can do the same to someone else.
- New gift: Open and the following player goes
- Stolen gift: Can be taken by another player
- Player #1 can steal or keep: After everyone has taken their turn, the first player gets to swap their gift with any other opened gift. Those who get their gift stolen may steal from another player.
- Rule variations:
- Don’t unwrap until the end: Add an element of mystery to the game by keeping all the gifts wrapped until the last person takes their turn. This way, you can still steal another player’s wrapped gift, but you have no idea what’s inside until the game concludes.
- Set a limit on the number of times a gift may be stolen: This variation can help bring an end to the game and limit the amount of times a player can steal a gift. We recommend three steals before a player is out!
- Combine White Elephant with Secret Santa: If you decide to do this variation, have each player draw a name and get a gift for their assigned person. Once everyone has unwrapped their presents, players can steal from one another.
History Behind the Tradition
The origin of White Elephant goes back to the Kingdom of Siam, otherwise known as modern-day Thailand. The Siamese king would get a real white elephant and give it to those who upset or displeased him. Though this may seem like an honor to many cultures and religions, it was actually a symbol of distaste.
Each elephant required 200-600 pounds of food a day, creating an extreme financial burden to those who received it. And because white elephants were so rare, they had very little practical value, which is where we begin to see similarities between this practice and the tradition we are familiar with today.
By the early 20th century, the phrase “white elephant” had broken free of any literal meaning and was widely used to describe impractical possessions whose cost and upkeep were out of proportion to its worth or usefulness.
How To Throw a White Elephant Party in 9 Steps
Planning on throwing a White Elephant party this year but unsure of where to start? We’ve got all the essential steps and tips listed here so you can have a holiday bash that everyone will be talking about long after it’s over.
1. Draft Invite List
The first and most important step is figuring out who you want to invite! If the party is being held at your company office, you can plan on inviting coworkers and management. Or, if it’s a casual shindig at your home, you can keep it to close friends only. Once your list is finalized, you can start spreading the word. Check out our post on holiday greetings for inspiration for what to say on the invites.
2. Appoint a Commentator
Having someone comment as the game is in progress adds a level of humor to the madness of it all. Use your best auctioneer or sports commentator voice and get ready to announce the play-by-play. This can also be useful if you have a big group or are hosting a telecommuter office party online, as people may not see all the gifts as they are being opened.
3. Set a Price Limit
Setting a price limit at White Elephant gift exchanges helps keep the gifts at similar value and doesn’t break the budget. We recommend setting it to $10-$20 and specifying a theme with it. Decide if you want holiday-related gifts, or gag gifts that will make everyone laugh. That way, everyone brings gifts that are on theme!
4. Establish a Theme
Now that the gift theme is set, what about the party theme? If you’re throwing a White Elephant party, it might be fun to have everyone dress up in white. Or, if you’re planning it around Christmastime, you can tell everyone to wear their ugliest holiday sweater. Setting a party theme adds to the fun and makes for great pictures.
5. Outline Clear Rules on the Invites
Make sure the rules are clear once you send out the invites. Let everyone know they’re expected to bring a gift within the price limit. If you’d like, you can also clarify that the gifts are meant to be silly or tacky, but that’s optional. If you decide to send out physical invites, we’ve created some cute and festive cards that are perfect for your party.
6. Decorate Accordingly
Take it up a notch and decorate your space accordingly. An easy way to do this is by decorating everything in white, including tablecloths, dishes, napkins and white flowers. Have fun and get creative with it! You can even create a DIY white balloon garland around your office or home to add an extra flair.
7. Serve White or Light-Colored Food
This step is optional, but is a fun way to stay on theme and get creative with food dishes. We recommend making sandwiches with white bread, or whipping up a delicious pasta dish that everyone will be fighting over. For dessert, you can bake vanilla cupcakes with white frosting or holiday sugar cookies for your guests to enjoy.
8. Display the Gifts
Here comes the fun part! Once your guests are settled in and socializing, you can gather all the gifts in one area and arrange them however you’d like. You can do it by size or shape, or in random order! Just be sure to make each present easily accessible to every guest when it’s time to play the game. If some presents still need to be wrapped, check out our gift wrapping ideas for inspiration.
9. Review the Rules
When everyone gathers for the gift exchange, take a minute to talk about the rules, especially if you have first-time players. Typically, people either draw numbers to see who goes first or the oldest member of the group opens the first gift. Depending on the number of guests you have and how long you want to play the game, you may want to set a limit on the number of times a gift may be stolen.
White Elephant Gift Ideas
Now that you’re prepared to throw the ultimate White Elephant party, it’s time to decide what gift you want to contribute to the game. We’ve listed a variety of fun, easy and useful gifts below for every occasion so you can give the best gift of the bunch!
If you’re feeling crafty, there are plenty of White Elephant DIY gift ideas you can make and bring to the party. Check out our list of creative ideas below:
- Potpourri: For a simple and inexpensive White Elephant gift, try using dead flowers in your home to make some DIY holiday potpourri. It’s best to use flowers that retain their shape and color well after drying out, such as roses, lavender and peonies. Add pine cones for the ultimate potpourri gift!
- Bath products: Try using flowers to make bath bombs or bath salts! In just a couple of minutes, and with a few ingredients, you can have a relaxing, floral bath. For the full recipe, check out our post on repurposing dead flowers.
- Wreath: For another fun White Elephant DIY project, try making a holiday wreath. All you’ll need is a grapevine wreath or a wire hoop (both of which you can find at the craft store), floral wire, tinsel and some pretty greenery.
- Candles: Candles add a touch of luxury and coziness to any space, so why not try making a White Elephant gift with a special twist? For a little something extra, mix some dried flowers into your wax. They will make for a gorgeous homemade candle that anyone will appreciate.
- Coasters: With some epoxy resin, pressed flowers and time, you can make beautiful floral coasters to gift to someone else. While this project may look daunting, it’s actually fairly easy, and you can find tutorials to help online.
If your company is hosting a White Elephant gift exchange, you’ll likely get a gift that a coworker would use in the office or at their desk. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites here:
- Blue light glasses: If you and your colleagues are busy staring at a computer screen all day, there’s no doubt you feel some eye strain after work. Buy some blue light glasses online or in-store for your White Elephant party — we assure you, whoever gets that gift will be grateful!
- Personalized mug: Personalizing a mug for a White Elephant party can be difficult since you don’t exactly know who is going to end up taking it home, but you can still get creative with it and come up with a funny phrase that will make anyone laugh.
- Mini desk fan: Does the office get hot during the day? If so, consider purchasing a mini desk fan for your coworkers to use to cool down or just get a breeze of cool air. Not only are fans helpful, but they look super cute sitting on a desk!
- Office plant: You can’t go wrong with a mini desk plant. This could be a succulent or air plant, or anything else that’s small enough to fit on a desk. Buy a cute pot to go along with it and your coworkers will love it!
- Under desk foot rest: Sitting at a desk all day can affect our posture, so buying an under desk foot rest at an office White Elephant party wouldn’t be a bad idea. They are usually pretty affordable and definitely help make work life more comfortable.
Hosting a family gift exchange? There are plenty of fun and goofy gifts you can get to bring a smile to your loved one’s faces. Check them out below:
- Popcorn maker: Elevate those family movie nights by purchasing a popcorn maker for the party. Whoever ends up getting this gift will probably be ready to set it up right then and there. You can find some cheap popcorn makers online or in stores so you don’t have to break the budget.
- Face mask: Pamper your loved ones with a nice clay face mask or sheet mask. Depending on the set budget, you can get a nicer quality mask or opt for a pack of affordable sheet masks. This easy gift is great for those who are doing last-minute shopping and need something to bring.
- Memory foam pillow: Step up your family’s pillow game and get a memory foam pillow for the exchange. Whoever ends up with this gift is going to have a great night’s sleep after the party!
- Cookbook: Find a cookbook with some unique recipes that anyone at the White Elephant party can enjoy using. You can purchase a book that focuses entirely on desserts, or buy one that has some delicious dinner recipes the whole family will love.
- Gingerbread house kit: Tap back into your childhood and buy a gingerbread house kit for your party! Whoever gets the gift can open it after the gift exchange and the whole family can help put it together — a festive activity for everyone to enjoy.
Nothing is more exciting than having a party with your closest friends. Let your creativity run free with these fun ideas:
- Disposable camera: Capture some memories with your friends and purchase a disposable camera to give at the gift exchange! Once the person opens the gift, they can start taking pictures of the whole crew.
- Bluetooth karaoke microphone: This gift would make for a great activity after the gift exchange. This crowd-pleaser is a fun way to get the group to show off their great (and maybe not-so-great) singing skills. Whoever ends up with this gift can bring it to future events, too!
- Cocktail making kit: Find a cocktail making kit and bring it to the party. This unique White Elephant gift is a great activity and can teach everyone how to make some delicious cocktails and mixed drinks.
- Puzzle: There are so many interesting puzzles to choose from, so pick one that best suits your friend group. It can have a funny picture or be artistic — whatever you think is best! If you’re really up for the challenge, you can get a puzzle with 1,000 pieces or even 5,000 pieces.
- S’mores maker: Ignite the flame after the gift exchange and use the S’mores maker to make some yummy treats. This is a great gift that will last a long time and can be used whenever someone has a sweet tooth.
Think you have what it takes to throw the ultimate White Elephant party? We think so! Don’t forget to take the time to prepare for this fun event and get some festive flowers to decorate your home. Feel free to follow our basic White Elephant rules or add your own twist to spice up the night and bring an end to another successful year.