white elephant gift exchange
white elephant gift exchange

How White Elephant Gift Exchange Started

It’s that time of the year to turn up the Christmas songs and play the fun “white elephant” gift exchange with your loved ones. But where does it come from?

According to legend, the tradition of white elephant gifts began long ago when the King of Siam—now Thailand—gave an actual white elephant to anyone he disliked. Those ancient kings had really weird ways of showing dislike…why even bother giving someone you don’t like a gift…especially an elephant? How about just giving them…nothing? Well, the gift was intended to bankrupt them. Because as you can imagine, white elephants come with a much higher maintenance cost than a Golden Retriever. And because the white elephant was also a respected symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, you couldn’t get away with regifting it or putting it to work.

So you were stuck with the unwanted gift, like the ugly set of towels your in-laws gave you for your wedding anniversary. The difference is, one drains all your fortunes, and the other dries your hair.

However, it is important to note this legend has no factual basis. The Thai historian Rita Ringis responding to this popular belief says: “No Siamese monarch ever considered white elephants ‘burdensome’ nor gave them away. In the Buddhist tradition, white elephants were a sign of status and good fortune.” So, it’s just a fun legend like many others.

The term white elephant party first appeared in a joke published in 1907 in Nebraska’s The Columbus Journal, according to blogger Peter Jensen Brown. “A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns,” the joke begins. “One of the popular society women announced a ‘white elephant party.’ Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet did not have the heart to throw away…nine out of the 11 women invited brought their husbands.”

The white elephant joke was later published in newspapers across the United States (which was the 1907 equivalent of going viral).

Nowadays, it’s still a very popular holiday game with rules that vary from one family to another. And this year, I’m sure it will still happen, but virtually…



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