If you, like me, have been anticipating this moment since the first leaves dropped from the trees and the initial shipment of pumpkin spice products flooded the shelves, congratulations: We've made it to the depths of holiday season. But with festivity and merriment comes great responsibility — the almost unavoidable obligation to organize and/or participate in a white elephant gift exchange.
Different groups have different rules for the iconic game (which supposedly has roots in the ancient kingdom of Siam, aka modern-day Thailand). But the basic premise is this: Gather a group of guests and have everyone bring one or more wrapped items, anonymously contributed to the pile. Some people prefer to mandate ridiculous gag gifts masquerading as legitimately covetable presents, while others opt for thoughtful must-haves.
But whether you call the game white elephant, Yankee swap or mean Santa, there's almost certainly some level of gift stealing involved. See someone score a gift you want? Many groups bestow one or more free steals onto each participant. Absolutely hate the gift you got and want to unload it? Some circles allow for bargaining and sales pitches so unlucky participants can try to convince someone else in the crowd to trade presents.
Whether it's with your co-workers or closest circle pals, the white elephant tradition can be a great way to pass some time at a holiday party and maybe even nab a great gift. But if you've been playing by the same rules year after year, the practice might be feeling a bit stale. Not to worry — there are plenty of ways to liven up the custom and still retain its sweet/hilarious/festive spirit. Here are 10 of them:
- Stick to a specific theme. Star Wars gifts only! Puppy-themed presents, and nothing else! Bring the most interesting bottle of hot sauce you can find or get out. However you choose to set the tone, pick a strict theme for gifts ahead of time and ensure everyone shows up with the right kind of items.
- Keep everything a secret until the end. The standard white elephant protocol typically involves each participant unwrapping their chosen item in front of the crowd, allowing everyone the opportunity to size up its merits (or glaring failures) and decide whether it's worth stealing. A twist on the classic game involves asking everyone to keep their presents wrapped so that any steals are based solely on assumptions. Misleading wrapping jobs and oversized packaging are very much encouraged.
- Enforce a dress code. The easiest way to spice up a party is to make sure everyone attending is similarly outfitted — whether that means demanding a sequins-only wardrobe or mandating the ugliest Christmas sweaters imaginable. When you send out your invite, include your fashion rules (make it comfy pajamas-only and your guests will love you).
- Make it a regifting extravaganza. With every gift-giving holiday comes the inevitability of receiving gifts you'd rather not be gifted. Ask all your guests to bring an unused or lightly used item — good or cringeworthy — that needs a new home.
- Play a game of clue. Allow each participant to attach hints to their packages — the vaguer and more misleading, the better.
- Eat everything at the end. Playing with these rules may discourage any overtly offensive contributions. Require each guest to wrap an edible item and celebrate the grand finale with a potluck.
- Combine it with secret Santa. Traditionally, the secret Santa gift exchange involves picking names ahead of time and stealthily shopping for your chosen person. Combine the sentiment with white elephant by having everyone open their gifts and guess their secret Santa ... and then allowing others to steal anything they'd prefer over the gift they received. This one could cause tension, so make sure you play it with friends who routinely rag on each other.
- Reward the master gifter. If the gift someone brought is so swoon-worthy, it's stolen more than any other gift, that person is deemed the white elephant winner and allowed an extra, finale steal. That means no one is safe until the bitter end, but there's a lot more incentive to bring something awesome.
- Make it a homemade swap. Some of your crafty friends will likely bring Etsy-worthy items, while your less creative pals will contribute elementary school-style drawings. Either way, there will be a lot of laughs and oohs and ahhs if you require every present to be homemade.
- Add an extra stealing challenge. Sure, you can try to steal someone else's gift ... but you'll have to beat them at rock, paper, scissors first. Or you'll have to answer a Jeopardy-style trivia question. Or best them in a feat of strength. Whatever you decide is the determining factor in a fair steal, you'll add an extra level of intrigue to the game and see how committed your pals really are to taking each other's stuff.