If you’ve ever been to a Southern Baptist Sunday School Christmas party, it is likely that you have been a participant in what is called, “A White Elephant Gift Exchange.”
It was years ago that I was part of this holiday party game, but during that time I was never able to determine why it was named such, as I never saw a pachyderm, white or otherwise.
And now, thanks to the Internet, you and I both know more.
For those who aren’t familiar with this party game, the object is quite simple: Bring the worst gift you can find and give it to someone else.
The rules for the white elephant gift exchange can vary as much as Monopoly (those hosting the game typically make the rules), but generally, you place your gift under the tree and people take turns selecting one to open.
After the first person opens one of their choosing, the next person can choose to either open another gift or take the one the first person opened. Each person can either pick a gift or steal a previously opened one, but once everyone has a gift, stolen or otherwise, the game is done.
The origin of this unusual holiday party exchange possibly dates back to the mid-1800s and may have included real white elephants.
Let’s start with a definition. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers several, but these are the most relevant:
a : a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit
b : an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others
c : something of little or no value
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going with A and C: a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit; and something of little or no value.
After leaving the dictionary site, my research migrated to The University of Google. I discovered that the white elephant gift exchange is also called a Yankee Swap in some parts of the country. But, regardless of the name, as I mentioned earlier, one legend says that it began with a connection to real white elephants.
Allegedly, (meaning this is just as likely to be made up as it is to be true) the King of Siam would give albino elephants to the members of his court that he didn’t like. The cost of upkeep for white elephants supposedly was expensive and could bankrupt the recipient.
The modern version of this approach to gift giving obviously doesn’t include white elephants or bankruptcy, but the goal is similar: Give someone something you don’t want, they don’t want, and is hard to get rid of.
Over the years of participating in a white elephant gift exchange I’ve seen the things you’d typically expect, such as ugly Christmas sweaters (which, of course, is redundant), toilet plungers, and cheese graters. But, without a doubt, the all-time winner was the first year someone brought an antique breast pump. I say first time because this gift returned year after year.
Its first appearance went something like this:
(Person opens gift)
(Women burst out laughing)
(Men look at each other and ask, “What is that?”)
I’m not sure which the women found funnier; the fact that there was an antique breast pump at a Southern Baptist Sunday School Christmas party, or that the men didn’t have a clue what it was.
For the record, I’m fairly certain that it was the latter.
What I do know is that it kept resurfacing at subsequent parties and that I wound up with it at least once.
If there’s anything women find more humorous than seeing a man who doesn’t want to be holding an antique breast pump, holding an antique breast pump, I’ve yet to witness it.
Each year, the men would try to come up with a white elephant gift that would top an antique breast pump, but as you might imagine, we failed miserably.
I haven’t participated in a white elephant gift exchange in many years, and honestly, I haven’t missed it.
I also have no idea what happened to the aforementioned pump, but I’m hopeful that it was lost in an intense fire, run over by a road grader, or accidentally loaded onto a NASA mission to Alpha Centauri.
But, if you’ve been asked to participate in a white elephant gift exchange this year and were needing an idea for the worst gift ever; you’re welcome.
©2017 John Moore
John’s new book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now is available on Amazon.