How to Organize a White Elephant Gift Exchange

A white elephant gift exchange is a lighthearted way to have fun with your friends, family or work colleagues. White elephant gifts are traditionally gifts considered extremely tacky, or that do not fit the tastes of the recipient, and that are given by a friend or close relative and therefore cannot be returned or exchanged at the store without potentially offending the giver. The thought behind a white elephant gift exchange is to give everyone a chance to rid themselves of these tacky gifts--and invariably gaining a new one! This is also known as a Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, or Pirate Gift Exchange.

  1. Organize the event. Give everyone invitations, along with a description of what a white elephant gift exchange is. Tell them to bring along the tackiest, most useless, and least fitting gift they've ever gotten stuck with, and to wrap it up or put it in a gift bag.

  2. Keep gifts anonymous. Put all the gifts in an area where it will be hard for others to see who brought what. In other words, don't have your guest walk through the party crowd with gift in hand before you get to the pile of gifts. The idea is for people to not know who the gift is coming from.

  3. Start the picking! Select who will open a gift first. You can have people draw slips of paper with numbers on them, roll dice, go by age, go alphabetically by name, or in a circle starting with who ever is closest to the door. In any event, figure out your system and have the first person choose a gift to unwrap. Feel free to crack jokes and make fun of the gift, since it'll probably be something no one would put on their Christmas list.

  4. Have the next person choose and open a gift. Now this is where it gets interesting. The person has a choice of whether to keep the gift they opened, or to "steal" an already opened gift from a previous person. If they steal a gift, they take that gift and give their unwanted gift to the person they stole from. That person then gets the option of stealing from someone else, and this continues until somebody decides to stick with their gift.

  5. Go to the next person in order and repeat. The exchange continues until every gift has been opened and the last person keeps their gift.

A gift that has been stolen three times is considered "frozen" or "locked" and cannot be stolen a fourth time. No one can steal back the gift that was just stolen from them.

While it is acceptable to re-gift an unwanted trinket, in practice many people end up purchasing new tacky items just for the party. The goal is to choose wacky, funny or entertaining gifts. If you're really stumped, just pay a visit to your local dollar store. Some ideas for white elephant gifts include:

  • Hideous jewelry
  • Perfume or lotion with an unpleasant scent
  • Cheap, ugly statues or other decorative knick knacks
  • Weird art
  • An obnoxious T-shirt or tie
  • A poorly made, straight to video/DVD movie, preferably with the star being at the center of public ridicule
  • An obscure or outdated book

Many variations of these rules exist. For example, many people playing the game do not intentionally choose gag gifts. On the contrary, many set a price limit (e.g., $10) and ask that people bring gifts with broad appeal -- a calendar for the upcoming year, candles, a card game, or chocolates, for example.

Another variation is that the next person in turn does not automatically choose an unopened gift and decide whether or not to keep it, but whether to choose a new gift or to steal one that was already opened. If they choose to steal, the person from whom they stole must make the same decision. This continues until someone chooses to open a new gift. This way, it is always a gamble when you choose to open a new gift, because you may get something no one else will want, and you'll be stuck with it. However, this variation can move the game along faster.

Many families also use this to buy nice gifts such as fire pits for the back yard, artwork for the house, etc. It's a great way to get laughs and nice things you will actually use and not save for next year's white elephant.

Parents and teachers can use this variation for children's holiday parties as a lesson in thoughtful re-use: Children bring a gently used toy, wrapped as a gift. The children may take a gift from another child, but it is not described as "stealing." All of the children leave with a gift that is new to them, there is no money spent in the process, and children learn both the fun of giving and how not to get too attached to a particular toy they may have their eye on throughout the gift exchange.


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