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.