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.