The History of White Elephant Gifts

Office mandated or just for fun with friends, most people have probably taken place in a white elephant gift exchange at one point or another. The rules, though simple, can vary depending on the participants.


The basic idea involves players showing up to the party with strange or funny gifts. After everyone has arrived and placed their gifts in the middle of the room, participants begin taking turns, often by selecting a number to choose a gift. The first player picks a present and opens it, then the second player has two options: they can either pick a new mystery gift from the pile, or “steal” player one’s gift. The third player has the same choice, and so on until everyone that brought a gift has a new one.


Many people believe this fun tradition stems from a fable about a king in Siam (modern day Thailand). Whenever someone disagreed with the king, or just did anything he did not like,  he would gift them with an albino elephant. Thai and Buddhist cultures see the white elephant as such a revered symbol, putting it to work or giving it away would show incredible disrespect. With such a large, costly animal and no way to get rid of it, legend has it that the king would financially ruin the unfortunate recipient.


Now, a “white elephant gift” usually means a gag gift, or one of little practicality. Adding a theme, having all gifts wrapped or bagged identically,  or writing hints on the packaging of each present can all add a bit more excitement to the party, but everything depends on the players.