White Elephant: A gambling man's spin on Secret Santa

Updated April 17, 2017

There’s nothing like a game to break the ice at a Christmas party or work gathering, and sometimes.

The "White Elephant" gift exchange is a great and economical way to add a little life to your Christmas or end-of-year party while making sure that everyone has a present to take home. You can add interest to the game when you know its origin, its usefulness in a group setting and modify the rules.

The sillier the gifts, the more fun the party.

Bruce Christensen, CEO of game developers PartyWeDo

The basics

Playing White Elephant has taken root as a Christmas party tradition across the Atlantic with our Yank cousins. Whether it's a small family gathering or a large office party with dozens of participants, this game injects quick fun to any party.

“The White Elephant gift exchange is a group gift-sharing party game, very popular in the United States and Canada,” said Bruce Christensen, CEO of McMinnville, US-based game developers PartyWeDo. “The objective is to share gifts among like-minded people, such as co-workers, friends and family.”

The basic instructions are easy to understand and can work in almost any setting. You can gather people together and seat everyone in the living room, or allow them to assemble in a large conference or common room. The trick is for everyone to be able to see the action.

Each person brings a wrapped gift to the party and those are placed in the centre of the room in which the game is being played. Some traditions throw names into a hat for a random drawing while other rules call for numbers drawn from a hat. Either method works for this game, as long as the order in selecting gifts is random.

The first person selects any gift they want from the pile.

“Part of the fun is not knowing what you’re going to get, but also trying to select a good gift based on shape and size," Christensen said.

Once the first person opens a gift, participants discuss how desirable or undesirable the gift is. “The sillier the gifts, the more fun the party,” Christensen said.

A second name is drawn or the person with No. 2 goes and that person has two options: They can either steal the gift from the first player, or they can open a new gift from the pile.

"As the game goes on, those whose names are drawn can steal any gift they see, or open a new one, until all the gifts have been opened.”

The game may seem straightforward but Christensen explained that some tactics can come into play.

“If you open a gift you really don’t want, one technique to get rid of it is to really talk up how cool your gift is so you can slyly encourage someone else to steal it,” he said.

Office origin

The origin of this game is, surprisingly, in the workplace.

“As far as we know, this game started in about the 1920s as an office-based event,” said Christensen, who created a white elephant online game with his wife Sarah, “Bosses didn’t want to burden their employees with a high-priced holiday gift exchange, but they didn’t want to discourage people from sharing gifts. So they leveled the playing field with a price limit. Then, if it became silly, it became more interesting.

“Originally, most people called it a Yankee swap. Then 'White Elephant' became the name most people use, because that term is used for things that have little value or are undesirable.”

Donna Steele, an account executive at James Event Productions, a leading party planning company, is a proponent of the white elephant gift exchange.

“When co-workers come together in a group, they don’t always know each other well,” Steele said. “By doing group games, you intermix all the different people from the same organisation and you create a fun relationship. That gives you memories; it gives you things to talk about and things that you have in common. All of a sudden you have that team camaraderie you didn’t have before the game.”

The noncompetitive nature of the game is one of the reasons it helps to bond co-workers, Steele suggested.

“I think laughter is always a good distraction,” Steele said. “I also think if you have more of a fun, crazy type of game rather than a competitive like 5-a-side football, which requires skills, people are starting on the same playing level and anyone can do it. You’re not limiting it to athletic people.”

Change it up

The Christensens have developed variations on the White Elephant gift exchange.

“One of our favourite variations is playing spin the bottle,” Christensen said. “You literally spin an empty bottle in the centre of the group, and whomever it points to gets a turn. With this variation, instead of getting one turn when your name is drawn, you may get multiple turns. In the original version, you only get a second turn if your gift has been stolen.

“Remember, you can only get one gift at a time,” Christensen said. “So if the bottle lands on you again, you must give up your gift, trade it or open a new one. You can also donate your gift to somebody who doesn’t have one. This is fun because you can say why they really deserve this silly gift.”

The Right/Left Game is an old party game, traditionally played by kids, with a gift that you pass around. The Christensens combine it with the white elephant gift exchange for an interesting modification.

“We created a story to go with it, called ‘Lefty the White Elephant,’ ” Christensen said. “The host reads it and whenever the word ‘gift’ appears, a name is drawn and a gift is selected. Instead of stealing a gift, you follow the story, and when the word ‘left’ comes up, all the opened gifts move one person to the left, or to the right when ‘right’ is in the story. It’s a fun variation.”

Other variations include a limit to the number of times a gift can be "stolen" while some games allow the person whose gift was taken to only select from the unopened pile.

One other wrinkle is for the person who went first to have one last look over the entire collection of gifts, both opened or unopened and make one last move.

Great gift ideas

Bruce Christensen, CEO of game developers PartyWeDo, and his wife, Sarah, have tested lots of gifts over the years and have some suggestions for party offerings.

“One we’ve always seen be successful is something called the slingshot duck,” Christensen said. “It’s a stuffed toy with a rubber band attached. When a person opens this, the first thing they do is put the band on their finger and fire the toy across the room, which immediately engages the entire audience.

“The gifts are a major talking point, so the sillier or more conversational the gift is, the more it enhances interaction between players.”

But Christensen warns against attempting to play this game with younger children, because it might upset them.

“The younger the group becomes, the more difficult it is for them to understand the scheming part of tricking others into taking a bad gift. Also, for example, my grandkids are 6 years old and under, and they would have a hard time grasping the idea that they liked their gift but somebody could take it from them. I’ve seen this game played most successfully with kids in primary school all the way through to A-Level students.”

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About the Author

Antonia Blyth began writing professionally in 1996. She has contributed to "British Marie Claire," "Us Weekly," "UK Elle," "Just Seventeen,", "Red UK" and "Madison Australia." Blyth holds a Master of Arts in journalism from Goldsmiths University of London and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University College London.