What Is A White Elephant Gift Exchange?

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The holiday season is full of traditions with loved ones, friends, and coworkers. But when you are used to basic Secret Santa swaps, you might not know how a white elephant gift exchange works. (For what it's worth, it is also known as a Dirty Santa or Yankee swap.) But, if you are asked to participate in one but have never even heard of it, don’t panic just yet. It is actually quite fun once you figure out the rules. And yes — there are usually more guidelines than the average Secret Santa swap. Hear me out, though.

The point of a white elephant gift exchange is to entertain. While other types of gifts have this kind of vibe, white elephant gifts take it to totally different level. Presents should be as weird and hilarious as possible. Think ridiculous gadgets, strange artwork, and funny gag items. Like I said, these items are all about entertainment and laughs.

And that’s not all. A white elephant swap also doubles as a competition. Participants aim to walk away with the best present out of the bunch. But when you can’t exactly choose a gift, you may wonder how this is even possible. It comes down to the actual swapping process of a white elephant game.

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Unlike a Secret Santa swap, you don’t pick a name out of a hat. You also do not purchase something specifically for any person. Instead, you buy an item before the party with the white elephant theme — useless gifts, usually, but people may vary this for their party — in mind. There may be other requirements such as “wearables only” or nothing worth more than $20. Everyone brings their wrapped gifts to the party and adds it to a pile.

To start the game, a participant must act as the first player; this can be decided randomly or by picking numbers out of a hat. The first player then opens the gift in front of everyone. As for the next player? This person can either “steal” the first person’s gift or snag an unwrapped item from the pile. Each gift can only be stolen twice before it's considered "dead."

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This process is repeated down the line. Any person that has to give up a gift can also pick a new gift or steal from another person. Each turn is only allowed three swaps between the current player and previous people. It is crucial for making sure the game does not last forever. Additionally, an item can only be stolen from another person once during a turn.

Phew… how’s that for a holiday game? It might sound complicated, but it is easier to understand once the exchange is in full swing. Unsurprisingly, there can be many variations of a white elephant exchange. It can even be simplified down to just one swap per turn, if you’d like. It all depends on how the game is organized.

Again, the main point of the game is to walk away with the most ridiculous gift out of the bunch. Your stealing decisions will be based on chance, luck, and your gut. And while it is easy to get competitive, don’t forget that the game’s purpose is to have a good laugh. Happy swapping!

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