Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Of White Elephants and Gifting

My favorite holiday tradition is the white elephant gift exchange. If you don't have these in your family or at your workplace, you're missing out on a lot of fun. Maybe I'm easily amused, but it's consistently the most fun I've had during the holidays. As an adult, anyway. The rules for a white elephant gift exchange are simple:

Everyone brings a gift already wrapped. Gifts should all be valued at roughly the same amount, usually $20 or $25. The gifts are strictly anonymous -- no one should know which gift you brought. All the gifts are placed on a large table, and each participant draws a number.

The person with #1 picks out a gift and opens it so all can see what it is. The person with #2 can either "steal" any unwrapped gift or choose a wrapped gift from the table. The game continues for each subsequent player with the following rules:

  1. If someone steals your gift, you can steal someone else's gift, or choose a wrapped gift from the table.
  2. A gift can only be "stolen" once during a turn.
  3. The turn ends when a gift is opened.

After the last turn, the person with #1 can opt to put back the gift and "steal" according to the rules. This starts the gift exchange again and ends when someone chooses or is forced to take the gift given up by the person with #1.

The real fun of a white elephant party is in the stealingtrading. Most white elephant parties are notorious for the yearly modifications to the rules to lubricate the trading process. Here's a clever one I recommend: have an "obvious" gag gift with a hidden $50 gift card in it. This encourages trading of the weirder gifts, which otherwise tend to languish with the original person who opened them. And no trading is no fun! The best white elephant parties have a good mix of gifts: some tacky, some bizarre, and some genuinely useful. When buying a white elephant gift, try to pick an interesting item that falls into one of those three categories. And put some thought into it-- don't just bring yet another bottle of wine, or the DVD du jour. Boring!

After participating in white elephant parties at Vertigo and my previous job, I began to wonder about the origin of the term "white elephant". The best answer I found was in this blog post:

white elephant

1. A costly possession requiring so much upkeep that it becomes a burden.

2. Something no longer wanted by its owner.

In [Thailand], the rare albino elephant was sacred, and each new one born belonged to the king. Moreover, it was forbidden to kill such an elephant or to use it for work. Therefore, the story goes, whenever the king wished to punish an obnoxious courtier, he'd make him a present of one of these pale pachyderms.

white elephant

It was a gift to be dreaded, however. Recipients could neither use the elephant nor get rid of it -- and inevitably went broke trying to keep it fed. Nowadays, the expression white elephant is used to apply more generally to any burdensome possession.

It's a great story, but it's amost certainly anecdotal. And white elephants aren't actually white. Because they're mostly hairless animals, albino elephants read as more of a mottled grey or pink, as you can see in this closeup photo.

Perhaps the best thing about white elephant parties is that they relieve us of the gifting burden. Buying a completely inappropriate gift for someone is way easier than trying to figure out what they might actually like. My wife and family complain that I'm notoriously hard to buy for. That's what happens when you grow up and realize that you're still a big kid with, er.. a lot more money. If you're trying to figure out what to buy for someone like that, I highly recommend Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools list. He digs up some amazing, obscure stuff. But what else would you expect from the ex-executive editor of Wired?

I tend to enjoy the wackier side of the white elephant gift exchange. Here are some memorable white elephant gifts from previous exchanges:

  • a full-sized top hat
  • Henna tattoo kit
  • Bottle of Jack Daniels
  • Unopened boxed copy of Windows 3.1
  • Barbie calendar
  • Handheld blood alcohol level tester
  • Cow flashlight (complete with moo sound effect)

What are some of your most memorable white elephant gifts?

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: