Author Archives: Hannah Puente

White Elephant Gift Exchange

This tradition started for my informant on Christmas Eve, 1975. On this particular Christmas Eve, after dinner, his mother planned it to be a fun game for the friends and family present.

Since that Christmas Eve, they have continued to do the White Elephant every year. The object of the game is to try to pick the best gift from a pile of re-gifted presents. No one knows what anyone else has wrapped up, so there may be something you want or you may get ceramic flip flop planters, (which my informant one year got) something goofy, crazy, and useless.

The rules according to his family are as follows:

The attendees are notified that if they want to participate in the game they must bring a present (an object that is gift wrapped) to the party. This present should be something from around their house that they would like to regift, the more ridiculous, the better, is emphasized. Twenty dollars or under in cost.

On the night of Christmas Eve, when the attendees arrive, they must place their present down when no one is looking or in a concealed room. This ensures no one knows whose brought which present.

A single person acts as the rule-master. They count the number of participants and and presents to make sure everyone is accounted for.

The attendees are positioned in a circle around the room, and the presents are placed in the middle.

The rule master will write numbers on little pieces of paper and place them in a hat (if there are 22 people at the party, the numbers 1 from 22 will be in the hat).

They will then go from person to person and have them choose a number. The best numbers to pick are the highest, which means you get to pick from the pile of presents after most of them have been opened, and can therefore decide if anything is worth “stealing.”

The person who chooses number 1 gets to choose last, so 1 is really the most desirable number.

If someone has a higher number than you, and likes what you chose, they can steal it, in which case you have to either steal from someone else, or choose another gift from the pile and hope for the best.

A gift can only be stolen twice, and there is no stealing-back.

The game is fun and exciting because you never know what strange item or desirable item will be opened next. My informant says their White Elephant can get pretty competitive with steels and making choices. Family members will use manipulation, “You don’t need that gift! You should choose something else, like the big one…oh I bet thats good!” Then snatch up the admired one at their own turn!

Over the years, some gifts make re-appearances, like the Raggedy Anne figurines, a stuffed elf doll with a scary face, and the shower stereo that didn’t work to begin with. Each item usually has a story or can create some tension… “Hey! Didn’t I give that to you for your 50th birthday! That’s nice, your giving that away!”

The game for his family is always looked forward to, a time to laugh, tell stories, get rowdy, and let loose. My informant was unsure of how the game got the name White Elephant and where it came from.

I think the term can be related to the fact that a white elephant would be rather odd. The game is supposed to use gifts that are odd, a gift chosen to be given away. So maybe a white elephant is something one does not want and wants to trade. The fun of the game is the unpredictability, that one could have great satisfaction from a choice or frustration.

It is a very economical game as well and could have been developed out of a need to stop spending money on things that are just going to be put in a closet, on a shelf, or given away in a couple years anyways. My informant is from a working class family and said his mother felt the game was good for some of the family members who were in a tight financial spot. The holidays for them were a bit disheartening with little money to go around. White Elephant was a way of gift giving that did not put anyone in an awkward position and emphasized the experience of giving rather than the actual gift.

Christmas Eve Candle Ceremony

My informant said that this is the most recent of ceremonies added to her family’s Christmas Eve celebration. It is called the candle ceremony.

The entire family will stand in a circle, in the living room, in order of oldest to youngest. Each person has a candle, with a little catcher for the wax. The oldest family member begins the ceremony by lighting their candle, in my informant’s family it is her grandfather. After he has lit his candle, he will say what he is thankful for. After he is done saying his piece, he then lights the person’s candle to right of his, the next eldest in the line, and they say what they are thankful for. This continues until every person’s candle is lit, and has said their thanks, then the candles are blown out.

My informant says the ceremony was introduced to the family by her aunt, who she believes learned it from a church function, as they are Catholic.

This ceremony reminds me of a prayer circle, which are common to the Catholic faith. Prayer circles are done often at retreats, or in times of reflection. Candles are a symbol of light, strength, and hope. In the Catholic religion, fire symbolizes the Holy Spirit as well. This ceremony, with the use of candles, and saying thanks on Christmas Eve, definitely emulates hope, strength, and faith for one another.

The fact that the family stands in a circle, and lights each other’s candles, expresses that they are the ones giving you the light, the strength, the ability to go on, and to see. Perhaps too, the fact it starts with the oldest and goes to youngest, symbolizes the passing of wisdom and vitality, a cycle of life.

Her family finds this ceremony to be beautiful and soothing, a time to reflect on one’s blessings and share them with the family as a whole.

“A Monkey’s Birthday”

My informant first heard this saying from a friend of hers in high school. On a sunny day when it started to rain, her friend suddenly said, “Its a monkeys birthday!” She looked at her friend very confusedly and asked, “What?”

Her friend said she had learned the saying in elementary school in Cameron Park California, a suburb of Sacramento. She said she was surprised my informant hadn’t heard it, that she thought most people knew this saying. My informant was surprised her friend thought this was common.

In asking my informant what she thought the saying meant, she believed it was a fun saying told to entertain children about the rare weather phenomena. That it was when a monkey was born!

In thinking more about why it is a monkey’s birthday, I began to think about the presence of the rainbow. Birthdays are events of creation and celebration. When it is both rainy and sunny, a rainbow can usually be found somewhere in the sky. The mixture of two opposite forces of nature make something beautiful, like a birth. Also a rainbow is the ultimate entity of color, and festivities or celebrations, are times of decoration in bright colors. Why it is a monkey, I do not know. Perhaps because monkeys are cute, playful, and mischievous. I think my informant is probably on spot when she said it is just a fun, creative saying for kids.

Oplatki Polish Ceremony

My informant is half Polish from her mother’s side and was raised upholding Polish traditions. She was taught that the most important and sacred of the Polish traditions is the Wigilia, which translates to Christmas Eve Vigil.

The Wigila has many different parts, the one in particular I will discuss is the Oplatki. The Oplatek (singular) is an unleavened (lacking yeast) wafer, similar to a host for Catholics. The wafer is very thin and made of flour and water. It is larger than the palm of one’s hand, and in a square shape, with a religious image imprinted on it.

On Christmas Eve, before dinner, the Oplatek are handed out to each person in the family. Each member will then go to another, and in a pair, will break off a small piece of the other person’s wafer. Once you have broken off a piece, you give them a blessing, tell them you are proud of them, wish them good luck, good health, and that any desires or wishes they have, will come to light for them in the new year, then you eat it.

My informant says this is a very cherished ceremony because it is a genuine way of getting the family together and interacting. Each person must participate and go up to every other family member. This forces communication, any tension or ill will, if it exists, must be put aside to uphold feelings of love and good will towards all.

She was taught that this ceremony has existed for a very long time, beginning in Poland. Her family has been doing it for as long as they can remember. This specific ceremony is carried on by people of Polish heritage all over the world.

If a family member is not able to make it home for Christmas, they will exchange pieces of the wafer by mail, which shows just how dedicated to the ceremony families are.

Poland is a very religious country, with large populations of Christians and Catholics. In the Catholic religion, Communion, the taking of the host, is the climax of the mass. The host symbolizes Christ’s body, Christ who sacrificed his life for his people, when one takes in the host, they are proclaiming their faith, devotion, and praise, in a very personal, physical way.

The Oplatki takes Communion out of church and into the home, an even more personal and intimate setting. To eat the host with those that you love and are of your blood, to offer them a blessing, individually, makes it a sincere, touching experience. It is close to the hearts of those who perform it, which is why it continues as a heritage tradition.


My informant says he began using the word about a year ago. He believes that he is the originator of this particular usage of “hoot.”

“Hoot” according to his definition, is synonymous with terrible, awful, and bad. For example, if a friend told him he could not join in going out and partying, due to an essay he had to write, my informant would respond, “That’s hoot man!”

He could not link his usage to any source or alternate usage of the word. He says he likes to use hoot when expressing disdain or displeasure, because of the way it sounds.

In doing my own research of the word, I feel he might have been linking it to a definition I found in Urban Dictionary, an online dictionary, notorious for defining urban slang. I think he may have derived his usage from the term hoot stick, which he said he had heard before. Hoot stick, in one definition on Urban Dictionary says:

“is a negative term used on a person, usually referring to sports, ~ That guy is hootstick, look at him, he can’t even hold on to the ball.”

This definition is pretty much the same as my informant’s for hoot, minus the particular reference to sports, as he uses it as a universal negative expression.

In looking up more definitions of hoot, the phrase “Aint worth a hoot” came up. In this sense, hoot is describing and object or thing lacking value, not worth much, a negative expression as well.

Hoot, in the sense of an owl, can be defined as a screech of displeasure, another negative usage.

In conclusion, my informant uses an abbreviated form of hoot stick, hoot, as a modern, negative expression, which can be traced to past negative expressions or definitions of the same word used in different contexts.