What's the Origin of White Elephant Parties?

tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images
tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images

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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What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

What’s the Difference Between Soup and Stew?

Tatiana Volgutova/iStock via Getty Images
Tatiana Volgutova/iStock via Getty Images

Whenever there’s even the slightest chill in the air, it's not hard to find yourself daydreaming about tucking into a big bowl of hearty soup or stew. And though either will certainly warm (and fill) you up, they’re not exactly the same.

Soup and stew are both liquid-based dishes that can contain any number of ingredients, including vegetables, meat, fish, starchy foods, and more; in fact, they can actually contain the exact same ingredients. So what sets your trademark beef stew with potatoes, carrots, and peas apart from your best friend’s trademark beef soup with potatoes, carrots and peas? Mainly, the amount of liquid required to make it.

According to The Kitchn, you usually submerge your soup ingredients completely in water or stock, while stews are just barely covered in liquid. Since you use less liquid for stew, it thickens during the cooking process, giving it a gravy-like consistency and making the solid ingredients the focus of the dish. Some recipes even call for flour or a roux (a mixture of fat and flour) to make the stew even thicker. And because stews aren’t as watery as soups, it’s more common to see them served over noodles, rice, or another grain.

The cooking process itself often differs between soups and stews, too: Some soups can be made in as little as 20 minutes, but stews always require more time to, well, stew. This explains why some stew recipes suggest using a slow cooker, while many soups are just made in an uncovered pot on the stove. It might also explain why stew ingredients are often cut larger than those in soups—because they have more time to cook.

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