The white elephant in the room

How to make gift-giving fun

A white elephant with a santa hat on.
Image: Pixabay

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

For many years I thought the only way to make gifting possible for large groups was the Secret Santa approach. You know the drill: Everyone’s name goes into a hat and whichever name you pull out is who you buy a gift for. You hope your name got pulled by someone who has at least a vague sense of who you are and not that one coworker or family member who always gives bath salts. You know the one.

Then a few years ago I suddenly found myself in two groups whose holiday traditions included “white elephant” gift exchanges, and it blew my mind.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, it refers to a gift-giving party game in which people “steal” gifts from each other. The game goes by many, many names, including Yankee Swap, Thieving Elves, Dirty Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Devil’s Santa, Steal-a-Thon, Snatchy Christmas Rat (really!), Gift Grab, Cutthroat Christmas, Rob a Santa, Grinch Exchange, The Grinch Game, and a few more that rely on offensive cultural stereotypes and have thus been left out by this editor.

The basic rules, according to, are:

1. Each player brings one wrapped gift to contribute to a common pool.

2. Players draw names to determine what order they will go in.

3. The first player selects a gift from the pool and opens it.

4. The following players can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pool or steal a previous player’s gift. Anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can do the same—choose a new gift or steal from someone else.

5. After all players have had a turn, the first player gets a chance to swap the gift he or she is holding for any other opened gift. Anyone whose gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet). When someone declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.

There are almost infinite variations that can make the game more or less stealy, but I’m going to tell you what I think makes this fun for everyone involved, based on the experience I’ve had with the two groups’ versions of the game.

You see, my writing group actually stopped playing the last couple years due to problems with the game. In my opinion, this was caused by a lack of clarity in the requirements for gifts. We’d set a price limit, but that was all. So some people brought genuinely nice gifts, some brought funny ones, and some were clearly trying to rid themselves of unwanted gifts.

This latter group might have been most in keeping with the name of the game—if the internet is to be believed, the name refers to the King of Siam’s propensity for giving albino elephants to courtiers he was displeased with, because the cost of maintaining the animals would be ruinous—but if you’re playing with people you like, the goal shouldn’t be to saddle them with something like that. It’s terrible to open a dud of a present, one that you know will never be stolen from you, and know right away that the game is over for you.

In contrast, my roller derby group has very clear and well-established expectations for gifts: socks. This works because it’s something that the members of the group pretty universally are into and because it means that they all have roughly the same worth. Yet within that framework there’s room for infinite creativity, and it’s terrific to see what people come up with hoping their socks will be the most sought after.

If you aren’t willing to go with as narrow a category as that, at least consider explicitly stating whether the gifts should be things people might actually want or simply outrageous things that are meant to entertain. As long as everyone’s on the same page, a good time should ensue!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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