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White Elephant

Main piece: In White Elephant, each family member buys a gift – some are perverted, some are not – and they all go into a random pile. Everyone picks a number that determines what order people pick their gifts in. The person with number one will be the first person to pick a gift, and the next person in line can choose whether to steal that gift or take their chances with a random pick from the pile. If somebody’s gift is stolen, they can choose another gift in the pile or steal from another player. This continues down the line, and everyone besides the first person will get a chance to choose a new gift or steal any previously-picked gifts when their turn comes, until the end.

Context: The informant is half Irish and half American. Her mother’s side of the family is originally from and still resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her paternal extended family live in Sligo, Ireland. She grew up culturally Catholic, but she does not consider herself religious. Our conversation took place in February on my couch at home in Atlanta after she began recounting her recent trip to visit family in Ireland. BN believes that the game originated in the the Southeast, as she originally learned of the game through her mother’s family. She’s always remembered it because they play the game every Christmas without fail, and the outrageous or sometimes provocative gifts are always memorable. BN cites the time her grandmother received a vibrating hairbrush, an innuendo that was laughed at among the adults without fully exposing the younger family members to “adult things” – after all, it is just a hairbrush, and no one is willing to let the impressionable children in on the joke.  

Personal thoughts: Oftentimes, people put extensive money, time and consideration into the gifts they buy their loved ones; modern society has convinced us that monetary value is one of the sole factors of worth. White Elephant forces people out of their narrow mindsets for what constitutes a good gift for someone. Gifts should not always be about giving a valuable or sought-after item, and this simple game teaches individuals how to appreciate a gift they didn’t necessarily want or ask for. It is about presently enjoying your time with your family, laughing at the unexpected moments, and going into a situation free of expectations. Moreover, while innuendo is often used to cloak satire or criticism, BN’s family uses innuendo to poke fun at each other in a lighthearted way, in which everyone bonds by sharing the same embarrassment, a concept reminiscent of practical jokes at weddings.

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