What Is A White Elephant Gift Exchange?

Have you ever been invited to a holiday party or a family gathering and heard the words “White Elephant Gift Exchange” tossed around? If you’re not quite sure what that means, don’t worry; you’re not alone.

A white elephant gift exchange is a popular holiday party game or social event where participants bring small, often humorous or quirky, inexpensive gifts to exchange with one another. The goal of the game is typically to have fun and entertain the participants, rather than to give or receive valuable or meaningful presents. It is also known as Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa.

The Rules of the Game

The White Elephant Gift Exchange involves a simple set of rules that add an element of surprise and fun to the gift-giving process. Here’s how it typically works:

Invite Participants: Gather a group of friends, family members, or co-workers who want to take part in the exchange.

Set a Budget: Establish a spending limit for the gifts. This ensures that participants don’t go overboard, making the gifts more affordable and accessible for everyone involved.

Gift Wrapping: Participants should wrap their gifts in an intriguing or creative manner to arouse curiosity. The wrapping is often as much a part of the fun as the gift itself.

Gift Placement: All gifts are placed in a central location, so everyone can see them. It’s essential to keep the gifts anonymous.

Selecting Order: Participants draw numbers or names to determine the order in which they will choose a gift.

The Exchange: The person with the first pick selects a wrapped gift from the central pile. Subsequent participants can either choose a new, unwrapped gift from the pile or “steal” an already opened gift from another participant. If a gift is stolen, the person whose gift was taken can then choose a new one or steal from someone else. However, a gift can only be stolen a limited number of times (usually three).

Continue Until Everyone Has a Gift: The exchange continues until everyone has a gift, at which point the game comes to an end. At the end, the first player may, if desired, steal any gift according to some rules.

Popular Variations


While the rules mentioned above represent the classic version of the game, there’s really no fixed or wrong way to play. Over time, people have introduced various new ideas into the gift exchange, aiming to keep the game engaging and possibly more strategic. Here are some rule variations that many individuals adopt:

Three Strikes and You’re Out: If your gift is stolen three times during the game, you are out of the game and can no longer be stolen from.

Three Strikes and the Gift is Removed: If a gift is stolen three times, it’s taken out of the game, and the person currently holding it gets to keep it.

No Additional Swapping: In this version, the first player may not be allowed to make extra swaps at the game’s end, or if they are, they’re limited to just one additional swap.

Themed Gifts: The game organizer may specify that participants bring gifts that align with a particular theme. The most common theme is a re-gift (an unwanted item found around the house).

Poem or Story: Instead of adhering to a fixed set of rules in each turn, participants follow instructions presented in a Christmas-themed poem or story. For instance, a White Elephant story might direct players to pass their gifts to the left or right until the end, when they get to keep the item they’re holding.

Honor the best gift-giver: Spot the gift that everyone desires and bestow an additional, final swap privilege upon the provider of the best gift. This can introduce a delightful element to your holiday exchange.

Keep the gifts wrapped until the end of the game: Infuse an element of suspense into the game by leaving all the gifts wrapped until the last person takes their turn. While you can still take each other’s wrapped gifts, the true contents remain unknown until someone ends up with it. Anticipate lots of laughter when everyone eventually unwraps their gifts and realizes they aren’t what they initially guessed. Prank wrapping your gifts can make this variation especially amusing!

Appoint a commentator: Adding a commentator to the game in progress introduces an additional dose of humor to the excitement. Put on your best auctioneer or sports commentator persona, and be ready to deliver a lively play-by-play commentary. This can be particularly beneficial for larger groups or when hosting an online office party, ensuring that everyone can stay engaged, especially when gifts aren’t visible to all during the unwrapping.

How many people do you need?

A minimum of four participants is required, but a white elephant game is most enjoyable when played with six or more people. In practice, you can play with any number of individuals, but the gift exchange becomes increasingly enjoyable and exciting as more people join in. The game’s duration also increases as more players participate.

How does someone win a game of white elephant?

In the game of white elephant, everyone comes out as a winner since each individual gets a gift. Additionally, the game itself is a source of enjoyment. Whether you end up with a humorous novelty item or a useful one, all participants are sure to have a wonderful time. There’s no better gift than laughter, after all.

Does the game have any limits?

White elephant gift exchanges can be quite lengthy, so it’s advisable to establish certain rules. For instance, you can specify that a gift can be “stolen” only up to three times, or a single individual can have their gift taken a maximum of three times. Some variations even permit the person who draws the number “one” to choose again once everyone else is done. The rules and limitations for the white elephant exchange are flexible and should be agreed upon by you and your party guests. It’s essential to clarify these rules before starting the game.

What makes the best white elephant gift?

When choosing a gift to bring to your White Elephant Gift Exchange gathering, keep an eye out for these distinctive qualities:

Humorous: Gifts that bring humor to the party tend to be crowd-pleasers, even though they aren’t always the most desirable items for swapping.

Unusual: Unconventional artworks and gadgets are also crowd-pleasers at gift swaps and are frequently highly sought after.

Thoughtful: There’s nothing wrong in selecting a genuinely thoughtful gift, as it has the potential to generate healthy competition during the game.

To sum it up, there’s room for a wide range of items in gift exchange. However, the common thread that ties them all together is that they should be captivating and interesting to make the event more enjoyable.

Final Words

The White Elephant Gift Exchange is not just about the gifts themselves; it’s about creating memorable experiences and sharing laughter with your loved ones. Participants often choose humorous, quirky, or impractical gifts that bring joy and entertainment to the event. While valuable gifts are allowed, the tradition often involves amusing and whimsical choices that make everyone laugh.

It’s important to approach the game with a lighthearted attitude and not take it too seriously. The unpredictability of the gift exchange and the potential for stealing gifts from one another adds an element of excitement to the event. This shared experience is what makes White Elephant Gift Exchanges a beloved holiday tradition.


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Author: Abdullah

Author: Abdullah

Abdullah is is a passionate writer, gift enthusiast, and SEO expert. Now, he writes on his blog, "Beloved Guides," where he shares thoughtful presents and wishes that will leave a lasting impression. He keeps inspiring people to share love and kindness through gifts.

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