In New England, it’s often called a "Yankee Swap." In the South, it’s "Dirty Santa." But across most of North America, the party game where participants trade (and steal) presents is known as a white elephant gift exchange.
The term white elephant has been used since at least the 1800s to refer to a less-than-desirable gift. “According to legend, the tradition of white elephant gifts began long ago when the King of Siam—now Thailand—gave an actual white elephant to anyone he disliked,” Evan Mendelsohn, co-founder of holiday apparel company Tipsy Elves, tells Mental Floss. “These rare elephants were quite expensive to care for. The white elephant was also a respected symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, so you couldn’t get away with regifting it or putting it to work.”
According to an 1873 article from The New York Times, the white elephant—impossible to get rid of, but too expensive to maintain—would be an enormous financial burden, impoverishing the recipient.
But the legend has no basis in fact, writes Ross Bullen, a professor of liberal arts at Toronto’s OCAD University [PDF]. He quotes the Thai historian Rita Ringis: “[N]o Siamese monarch ever considered white elephants ‘burdensome’ nor gave them away." In Buddhist tradition, white elephants were a sign of status and good fortune.
The notion of “swap parties” started picking up steam around 1901, when Kentucky’s Hartford Herald published an article describing a gift exchange with “four or five little bundles, wrapped so that no one else can suspect the contents.” Early descriptions of swap parties recommended that players bring the most absurd gifts possible, finishing the game by handing out prizes for “best bargain” and “worst bargain” (the recipient of the worst gift would be required to tell a story, sing a song, or otherwise entertain the group).
The term white elephant party first appeared in a joke published in 1907 in Nebraska's The Columbus Journal, according to blogger Peter Jensen Brown. “A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns,” the joke begins. “One of the popular society women announced a ‘white elephant party.’ Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet too good to throw away ... Nine out of the 11 women invited brought their husbands.”
The white elephant joke was later published in newspapers all across the United States—the 1907 equivalent of going viral. In 1908, society pages in newspapers started publishing notices for actual white elephant parties, where attendees were encouraged to make gifts of objects they wanted to get rid of.
White elephant gift exchanges have remained relatively unchanged since then, although rules differ from place to place. Want to host your own white elephant party? Find the rules at the official white elephant website, and check out our list of fun gift ideas.
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