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What Is a White Elephant Gift Exchange?

Learn the origin of this classic game and explore 15 awesome gift ideas to ensure your present is the one everybody fights over.

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White elephant gift exchange basics

From office parties to large family gatherings, white elephant gift exchanges are a fun-filled way to turn exchanging presents into a game. What is a white elephant gift exchange? It typically consists of a group of people who each bring one wrapped awesome/bad/campy/funny gift (that could go to anyone in the group) of similar value and place them into a single, anonymous pile. Participants then pick a number from a hat (hint: the higher the number, the more options you’ll have), and take turns choosing a gift from the pile—or “stealing” from an earlier participant who’s already picked—until everyone has a present in front of them. The rules can vary a bit, particularly as it relates to how many times a popular gift can be stolen, but that’s the general gist. Thankfully, most participants find the whole process hilarious and have a good sense of humor about what gift they end up with, however one or two will inevitably voice their disappointment when stuck with a less-desirable gift. These DIY Christmas gifts or 25 thoughtful gifts for coworkers are another smart place to start looking for ideas.

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The origin of white elephant gift exchanges

So, what is a white elephant gift, exactly? Legend has it that the origin of this popular game can be traced back to the kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand). The Siamese king would gift an actual albino elephant to anyone who displeased him. Now, that might not seem like such a bad thing, but these rare elephants were incredibly expensive to take care of—so whomever received one had to take on the financial burden of keeping a 6- to 12-ton mammal alive and happy. The white elephant was also a revered symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, so you couldn’t get away with simply letting it go or regifting it. And, seeing as they were considered to be sacred animals, they weren’t allowed to be put to work. So, as you see, it wasn’t a gift at all, but an extravagant burden meant to ruin the recipient’s finances.

Of course, like any legend, this origin story could very well be fictitious. In Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art, and Reality, author Rita Ringis posits that no Siamese monarch ever did this and would never consider doing this because ownership of a white elephant was an incredible honor. This may leave you wondering where other holiday traditions come from—don’t miss the history of 10 favorite Christmas traditions.

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Beer belly fanny pack


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Amazingly, fanny packs are back in style and all the rage—but you’ve never seen one quite like this. The Dad Bag fanny pack by Bamomby gives the illusion of a hairy man’s beer belly, which is sure to make anyone giggle. But it’s not just funny, it’s also useful: Stash your keys, cell phone, wallet, and, of course, a few beers in it for your next outing. Peruse these additional 20 funny gag gifts for the whole family, for more inspiration.

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Stress doll


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We can’t escape stress, but we can find healthy ways to let off some steam. The Dammitt Doll is a stress toy for adults that’s far less karma-inducing than a Voodoo doll. Don’t let the fact that it’s handmade fool you—it’s durable enough to sustain a mean squeeze and even a major blow. Go ahead and beat it into your desk at work or the kitchen table at home—before you know it, you’ll be laughing instead of swearing.

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Hot dog toaster


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Mmmm, who wants hotdogs? Well, there’s no need to fire up the grill when you have a retro pop-up hot dog toaster by Nostalgia. This bad boy toasts up two hot dogs and two buns at the same time. But wait, there’s more! Adjustable settings allow you to cook everything to your preferred level of doneness and the drip tray slides out for easy cleanup.


Emoji slippers


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What’s everyone’s favorite Emoji? It just looks so happy—and that’s exactly how your recipient’s feet will feel in their new poop Emoji slippers. These unisex plush puppies are soft and warm, and the anti-skid bottoms will keep you from slipping in the bathroom. Plus, just think of all the camera-worthy moments you can have after training your dog to bring these to you.

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Water bottle


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It’s all too easy to lose track of how much (or little) you’ve consumed each day. The H20Coach is a half-gallon sports water bottle made of BPA-free plastic that has encouraging time markers and motivational phrases to keep you on track. The comfortable carrying strap means your lucky recipient can take it anywhere they go. Those who are serious about hydration will also want to check out these smart water bottles.

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Instant art


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Learn to live in the now with disappearing artwork. The mini Buddha Board is a relaxation tool that encourages creative expression, being in the moment, and letting go—all with water, a bamboo brush and a clean slate. With each brushstroke, your recipient’s worries are transformed into a work of art and then sent off into the universe as the water dries and the image disappears. Poof!

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Presidential plant


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Honest Abe never looked so…green! After planting the seeds in this decorative pottery plant, you’ll enjoy full plant growth in one to two weeks—after that, feel free to style any way you please.

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Bath bombs


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After an exhausting round of white elephant exchanging, a nice relaxing bath sounds like nirvana. Handmade premium quality bath bombs made from organic ingredients make every bath look and feel more luxurious. Let aromas like Mango-Papaya Island, Eucalyptus Wave, and Blossom Euphoria melt your troubles away—plus, the stunning colors won’t even stain your tub.

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Tea mug


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You know what’s always good for a laugh? Bringing an actual white elephant to a white elephant gift exchange. The 15 oz. elephant tea mug from Volar Ideas is made of high-heat-resistant ceramic and has a compartment for resting the used tea bag once it’s done steeping. Sure, it’s overly literal, but it’s also useful and adorable.

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Pizza socks


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What is a white elephant gift exchange without a pair of socks? But not just any socks will do—they need to be colorful, funny, and something people will actually fight over. The Pizza Socks Box delivers, thanks to its four pairs of pizza-themed socks that come neatly folded in a pizza box and looks like a real pizza inside. Just make sure nobody at the party tries to sneak a bite.

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Wine glass


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Countless studies show the health benefits of a glass of wine a day—but do they ever really state how large of a glass counts as one? You can easily skirt the issue with a giant wine bottle glass from BigMouth Inc. It holds an entire 750 mL bottle of wine and comes with a variety of clever sayings printed on the front.


Portable speaker


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Get the party started at your white elephant exchange the second somebody opens up your gift of a portable wireless Bluetooth speaker. It provides 12 to 15 hours of full, high-definition sound in a compact design and will seamlessly connect to your phone, tablet or laptop in just a few seconds. It’ll also shut down after Bluetooth is disconnected for ten minutes, which helps save the charge. In fact, it’s on par with the 41 coolest tech gifts you’ll want to keep for yourself.

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Measuring cups


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What does absolutely everyone need in their life? A ceramic pig measuring cup set reminiscent of stacking dolls. The vibrant colors, whimsical florals, and geometric patterns are sure to liven up any kitchen counter and your recipient will think of you every time they bake muffins. They also double as convenient prep bowls for more complex recipes.

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Card game


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If you’ve ever switched phones and lost all your contacts, you know how tough it can be to figure out who’s texting you. And, since that person thinks you know who it is, there’s almost never any context—which can lead to some pretty bizarre messages. Finally, this all-too-common practice has inspired an adults-only card game called New Phone, Who Dis? While it’s not exactly one of 12 classic board games everyone should own, it’s an entirely offline text message party game where players compete to create the funniest text message thread and sure to make you LOL.

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Latte mix


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Sit back and watch people throw elbows over a gift containing caffeine. No seriously, a mini coffee set including caramel, cappuccino, amaretto, French vanilla, mint mocha, and Irish cream lattes will be worth fighting over (and what is a white elephant gift exchange without a little bloodshed?). Simply mix in six ounces of hot water and enjoy a cozy cuppa without having to wait in line at trendy coffee shops. Next, discover 60 of the best gifts on Amazon Prime.

Jill Schildhouse
As an editor-at-large for Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse is an expert in health and wellness, beauty, consumer products and product reviews, travel and personal finance. She has spent the last 20 years as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor for a variety of national print and digital publications.