Tag Archives: family game

White Elephant Ritual

Text: “My family organizes a big white elephant on Christmas Day that everyone is involved in. Everyone brings a present and then everyone exchanges it.”


The Informant is a student at the University of Southern California, speaking with admiration and nostalgic reminiscence as these memories are recounted.

“My extended family on my dad’s side mostly live in New Jersey, and they’ve grown up there. And every Christmas we spend Christmas with them. We have like a designated path where first we go to like this aunt and uncle’s house for the morning, then we hit like this aunt and uncle’s house for dinner. But at the first place, we do the white elephant. And the significance of this is that my family is huge. My dad has seven siblings, so there’s a lot of people involved in this white elephant. And it kind of takes up the entirety of the first half of the day. And these items become recurring things that people will just have with them whenever we see each other.  And they’ll like, kind of have memories from years before, like, oh, remember when this person got this. So it actually is like an event of Christmas. And often times it’ll be like references to family jokes or just like family things. Like my family watches It’s a Wonderful Life every single Christmas. And then one Christmas people got Bedford balls and It’s a Wonderful Life shirts, just like so interesting and niche. I think as I’ve grown older, I liked it a lot more because, I’ve felt a lot more part of my family. And it feels like we’re reinforcing that we’re all part of a group and that we’re actively keeping it alive through traditions, not just seeing each other, but caring about each other, like wanting to have individual connections with each other. That’s a family. I think white elephant can be fairly common, especially with friend groups. I have heard of other people doing this tradition, but I don’t know if people do it as consistently. Like this is my family’s white elephant.  When people are kind of thinking ahead of time of what to bring like what has been mentioned, what has been joked about over the past year at family gatherings, like, yeah, it’s very topical to the year kind of like the past experiences of what’s been happening. So it feels like a recap family thing. I think maybe when I was younger, I wasn’t super aware of it. And then as I became older, yeah, I think we’ve been doing it like every single year.”

Analysis: This white elephant tradition is an example of a ritual that is performed in celebration of a holiday. It is considered a ritual because of its nature of being performed at a certain time, planned, commemorating Christmas, among the same group of people. There is little distinction between the participants as audience and performer because each person takes on each role at certain times. The white elephant ritual specifically is an example of people having ritual license, where they act in ways that are not normally acceptable. This can be seen in how participants are allowed to steal others’ gifts and give ‘gag’ gifts that hold no real value. Despite the white elephant ritual being a widely known game especially in the U.S., many families and groups like the Informant’s can find personal significance in performing the ritual.

Pooh’s Sticks

Main piece: Pooh’s Sticks is something we always do, and my dad did it as a kid too, where you find a pond with a bridge over it, or a river – something that has moving water. Everybody finds a stick that they think is going to be the winning stick, you drop it off one side, run to the other, and whoever’s stick comes out first is the winner. 

I don’t know why we call it that. I think it comes from Winnie the Pooh, they do that.

Background: O is twenty years old, but has been playing Pooh’s Sticks since early childhood. While she grew up in Richardson, Texas, she was taught this game by her father, who grew up in Malmesbury, a town in Wiltshire, England. She and her brother, who is sixteen, continue to play Pooh’s Sticks with her parents. The game is not specific to a particular location; she says that they’ll play the game whenever “we come across a good bridge and river”. 

Context: I initially approached O to discuss folklore in the visual arts, as she is an illustrator. While we were discussing it, she asked if she could tell me about folklore from her childhood. I enthusiastically said yes, and she told me about Pooh’s Sticks. She finds the game quaint and charming, and got really excited when telling me about the races she’ll have with her parents and brother. It’s a game she still enjoys playing to this day.

Analysis: This folk game appeals as it costs nothing to play, can be played with any indeterminate number of players, and requires no skill set nor set age. Pooh’s Sticks was initially taught to O as a small child by her father, showing that it is a way to keep a kid entertained when there are no toys or other means of entertainment around. It also gives little kids equal opportunity to win the game, which is a rare occurrence for young children, and something O cited as a particularly exciting part of playing – that she could beat her mom or dad at something. M, O’s father, grew up in the rural village of Malmesbury, and O recalls him telling her about many games from his childhood, all stemming from the nature around them – he and his friends would play frisbee with a frozen cow patty, or throw sticky burs at people to tease them. It seems as if Pooh’s Sticks was another game that arose from this setting, although O (living in Texas) has played this game with her parents in multiple locations.  

Main Piece: Tape-note game

Background: The informant is very fond of the games she played with her family as a child. In the early 70s, they did not have the digital resources we do today to keep us entertained. Board games were a hit in her house, as were cards and chess, but her favorite game is what she calls the ‘tape-not game’. This game is similar to the popularized smartphone game Headsup

Context: the informant explained that every Sunday night, her family would choose a game to play together. She was one of 5 children, plus her parents, so games were especially fun because of the size of the group. She said her favorite game was the ‘tape-note game’ and described the premise. Each player writes the name of a person of notoriety on a sheet of paper and tapes it to the person’s forehead next to them, without that person seeing the name on the card. Once all the players are assigned names, each player takes turns asking a yes or no question about the person on their head. The first player to guess who is written on their note wins. The informant loved this game in particular because it was interactive and required a lot of thought to succeed in the game. She also liked that depending on who was seated next to her, she could choose a celebrity that she thought would be funny or challenge the player. The game was more personal than cards, and the informant appreciated all the laughs that accompanied playing. This game was termed by her family and the rules are flexible depending on the night. 

Thoughts: This is a folk game that is specialized to the informant’s family. It became a Sunday night custom and an opportunity for the family to gather together and connect. The informant is reminded of a different version of this game that fits into a more contemporary digital era when she sees people playing Headsup. Another similar popularized game is the board game Headbands. These commercialized games, however, come with a handbook on how to play, whereas this family folk game is less formal and more personalized.