AnnaMarie Houlis
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What is a White Elephant exchange and how do you have one with your friends or loved ones over the holidays? Here's everything you need to know!

What is a White Elephant gift exchange?

A White Elephant is similar to a Secret Santa, but there are some key differences.

"A White Elephant Gift Exchange is a popular Christmas event where people vie to walk away with the best present," according to the official website. "It also goes by Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa and a plethora of other names. The White Elephant game is played by a lot of different rulesets — some dead simple and others confusingly elaborate."

There are tons of different ways to play the game, but a White Elephant Gift exchange is usually simple.

"There are lots of different approaches to buying a White Elephant Gift," according to the official website. "As long as you’re following the price suggestion (typically around $20) and any “special” instructions by the organizer, you can’t really go wrong. That said, here are some characteristics to look for when looking for a gift to bring to your White Elephant Gift Exchange party: Funny gifts make the biggest splash at the party, but aren’t always the most desirable items for swapping. Weird artwork and gadgets are also popular at Christmas gift swaps, and are often highly sought after. There’s nothing wrong with buying a genuinely nice gift, especially since it has the potential to fuel a lot of competition during the game."

What are the rules of a white elephant gift exchange?

There are several rules to a white elephant gift exchange, though the exchange is very simple.

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

The gift exchange organizer should provide detailed information on what type of gift people should bring, as well as on the budget to which everyone should adhere. This way, it keeps it equal for everyone.

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

Everyone in the group will draw a number out of a hat or box. The number should be a surprise to them, so that no one can cheat to go first. Once every player gets their number, they can sit in the order of their numbers.

3. Players sit in a circle or line so that they can each see the gift pile.

Every player should get together to sit in a circle or in a line in their numbered order. They should all be able to see the gifts in the pile of presents so that they can easily pick and steal (more on that soon!).

4. The first player selects a gift from the common gift pool and opens it in front of the others.

The first player should select a gift from the common gift pool. They'll open it in front of the others.

5. The following players then choose either an unwrapped gift from the pool or to steal a previous player’s gift.

The next player can then choose a new gift from the gift pool or steal the first player's gift. This goes on and on around the circle or down the line.

Then, anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can then do the same in that they can go ahead and choose a new gift or steal from someone else.

6. 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. 

Once all the players have had a turn, the first player then gets a chance to swap their gift or any other gift that's already been opened. Meanwhile, anyone whose gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet, as well). When someone finally declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.

While these are the rules, some friends groups do decide to add some added fun.

"While the above rules are as close to the 'vanilla' version of the game as you can get, there’s really no right or wrong way to play," according to the official website. "Over the years, many new ideas have been incorporated into the gift swap game, with the aim of keeping the game moving and/or making it more strategic. Here are some rules tweaks many people use:

  • "Three Swaps and You’re Out. If you get stolen from three times during the game, you are out of the game and can no longer be stolen from.
  • "Three Swaps and the Gift is Out. If a present gets stolen three times, it’s out of the game and the person who holds it gets to walk away with it.
  • "No Extra Turn/No Extra Swapping. Some people don’t allow the first player to swap at the end. Or, if they do, the first person simply gets to swap once with no additional swapping allowed.
  • "Poem/Story. Instead of following the same set of rules each turn, players follow instructions given to them through a Christmas-themed poem or story. One type of White Elephant story tells players to pass their gift left or right until the end, when they get to keep whatever item they’re holding.
  • "Gift Themes. The organizer may require people to bring a gift that fits a certain theme. The most common one is a re-gift (i.e., an unwanted item that people have lying around the house). However, the theme could be anything – ornaments, coffee table books, candy, do-it-yourself crafts, etc."

What are some gift ideas for a white elephant gift exchange?

Here are some gift ideas for everyone in your life over the holidays.

Family

Here are some gift ideas for your family!

  • Fruit Basket
  • Wine
  • A gift card for a family meal dining out

Coworkers

Here are some gift ideas for your coworkers!

  • A Lunch Gift Card
  • Coffee Gift Card
  • Flowers

Friends

Here are some gift ideas for your friends!

  • Jewelry Accessories
  • A ticket to a concert
  • Liquor

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.