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

Written by antonia blyth | 13/05/2017
White Elephant: A gambling man's spin on Secret Santa
The fun of the White Elephant Gift Exchange is not knowing what's in the wrapped present. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

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, albinophantblog.com. “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.”

White Elephant: A gambling man's spin on Secret Santa
(Mike Powell/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Change it up

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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