What is a white elephant gift exchange?

by Brad Unbelated
last updated on

Are you planning on having a Christmas gift exchange with your friends? Then you should consider playing the white elephant game. A white elephant gift is a name given to a gift that is impractical or useless. It’s often a gift that burdens the receiver more than it benefits them. And because of the nature of the gift, it’s also hard to get rid of.

What is a white elephant gift exchange?

The name white elephant came from a legend. According to this legend, the King of Siam used to give white colored elephants to his enemies. The objective of the king is to make his enemy go bankrupt from the cost of maintaining the white elephant. The animal is considered to be sacred but because it’s holy it’s not allowed to be used for work. It also requires special housing and food. The recipient is also not allowed to give away the animal because it’s a gift from the king.

Today, the white elephant game is played among friends and not enemies. And the goal of the game is not to make the players go bankrupt but to have good clean fun. There are many variations when it comes to how the game is played. But the rules below are the most common.

How does it work

First of all, you need a group of people to play the game with. Then you need to explain the rules of the game to the participants. The game needs to be planned ahead to give time to the participants to buy gifts.


All of the participants must bring a wrapped gift. Of course, the gift should fall under the definition of white elephant. It can also be useful to set a specified amount for the gifts.

  1. Place all of the wrapped gifts into one pile.
  2. Then you need to draw numbers to determine the order of play.
  3. Player 1 must choose a gift from the pile and then unwrap it. Player 2 can steal the gift from Player 1 or choose from the pile.
  4. If someone steals your gift, you can get a new one from the pile.
  5. Only 2 steals per gift is allowed. This means that if a player steals a gift that has been stolen already, he or she gets to keep the gift.
  6. The game ends when all of the players has a gift.

Good ideas Christmas gift exchange

Whether you’re playing white elephant or other gift exchange games or activities, it’s always a good idea to keep your gift simple. If you’re playing white elephant, you really don’t have to buy a completely useless gift. The goal is to amuse and be funny and not to offend. So it can be kitschy and not totally useless. Be creative.

Bad ideas Christmas gift exchange

You can use the Golden Rule when you go shopping for a gift. Ask yourself: How will I feel if I get this gift? If you feel that the gift will make you laugh or feel amused, then it’s a good idea for a gift exchange. The last thing you want to happen is to make the recipient feel uncomfortable.