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What is a White Elephant gift exchange? What is its origin and what are the rules?

White Elephants are a special type of gift exchange that could be fun to try with friends or family members this holiday season. Here are the basics.

White Elephants are a special type of gift exchange that could be fun to try with friends or family members this holiday season. Here are the basics.
Omer MessingerGetty Images

For those interested in putting together a gift exchange this holiday season, a white elephant may be a fun option.

Where does the name come from?

The name for this type of gift exchange comes from an old tale from the Kingdom of Siam or modern-day Thailand. The story goes that the king would give a rare albino elephant to other rulers that he did not like. The guiding principle is that in a white elephant exchange you give a gift that is impractical or extravagant.

The Rules

A white elephant requires that each participant bring a gift to the exchange. The host can create rules over the types of gifts that can be brought, including price. Once everyone has gathered the participants will randomly pick a number to create the order under which the exchange will take place. It is also easier if the participants sit or stand in the order they will select a gift, so that the order is not disrupted throughout the game.

Once situated, the first person will open one gift, whichever they choose.

Next, the second person can either pick another gift to unwrap or steal the gift the first person selected.

The third person, and the rest, will follow the same procedure (unwrap or steal) until all the gifts have been opened.

Stealing

If a person sees a gift that they like but it has been selected by someone else, they are allowed to steal it.

A single gift can only change hands three times, meaning that after it has been opened, it can be stolen by two other people. Once the second steal occurs, it will become the permanent gift of that person.

A single gift can also only be stolen once per turn, meaning that if it is stolen from the person that opened it, then someone who wants that gift will need to wait until everyone else has a gift.

If a person has their gift stolen, they can either steal another person's or unwrap a new gift.

No. A gift can only be stolen once per round. If your gift is taken, you can steal another gift (that has not been stolen in that round) or take an unwrapped gift.

A gift can only be stolen three times throughout the entire game. Additionally, a single gift can only be stolen once during each round. Should the person choose to steal another, then this process will be repeated until everyone has opened or stolen have a gift.

A person is only able to steal a gift once per round! This avoids an issue where the exchange cannot progress.

If many people decide to steal, some people may open more than one gift.

How does the game end?

When all the people have gifts and nobody wants to steal an illegible gift, the game is over.

Gift Themes

The host of the white elephant can select a theme for the gifts. Some have considered making the gifts humorous, food or candy-related, or something used. What is most important to many who have played the game is that all gifts are around the same price.