4 Ways to Avoid Awkward Moments at White Elephant Parties

Photo: waferboard

Chances are you’re invited to one of two types of soirees this holiday season — an ugly sweater party or a white elephant party. (See also: Creating a Memorable Christmas)

The former is self-explanatory. Everybody wears the ugliest holiday sweaters they can find — usually obtained from a thrift store or their mom’s closet. The latter, however, is a regional name for the more generic gift exchange.

The rules of the white elephant party are simple. Everybody who attends is required to bring a wrapped gift worth no more than a specified amount — generally between $10 and $20. At the height of the party, the guests will convene to unwrap presents in an order, most likely decided by numbers drawn from a hat. Each person will then choose a gift in order. The first person picks a gift, opens it, and shows it to the rest of the party. In turn, the rest of the participants, in order, choose to either unwrap a new gift or to "steal" a previously unwrapped gift. If a gift is "stolen," the person who had their gift taken is allowed to unwrap any still-wrapped gift, and the turn passes. When all the gifts have been opened, the game is over.

You can already tell how awkward this can get, right? There are so many variables — the personality of the gift buyer, the potentially offensive content of a gift, and the hurt feelings of those who get a crappy gift. Not to mention that if you’re chosen to go first, you can bet you’re going to end up with the worst gift there is; on the flip side, whoever chooses last basically has pick of the litter since no one can steal his or her gift.

If you’re invited to a white elephant of gift-exchange party this year, try to avoid those awkward moments with these four tips.

1. Stay on Budget

If the host of the party sets a limit for how much you should spend on the required gift, stick to the limit. That doesn’t mean that the gift must be worth the limit — for instance, if the limit is $20, a $15 gift is perfectly fine — but it should not exceed it. Going over budget can make the other guests feel cheap. Even if you’re regifting, which a lot of people do for these parties, be conscious of the original retail price of the gift. Just because you didn’t shell out money for it doesn’t mean it has no value.

2. Buy Usable Items

I once went to a white elephant party where a participant in the gift exchange brought a gift card to a grocery store that was very local to her. Unfortunately, there are none of those stores where I live, so I couldn’t use the gift card. I gave it back to her so it wouldn’t go to waste, but it was a little annoying. When buying your gift, make sure that it’s all-purpose and preferably consumable. Personally, I don’t want any gifts that take up space in my home. Besides, you don’t know what people already have — someone brought a coffee mug to that same party, as if no one had one of those already. While the party wouldn’t be fun if everyone brought a gift card, try to think outside the box for your gifts while keeping in mind that not everyone will be from the same area you are. Keep this in mind when shopping — go generic, but clever.

3. Just Say No to Alcohol

This isn’t meant to say that you can’t drink at the party, but the gift you bring for the exchange should not be alcohol — for two reasons. The first is that everyone will know what the gift is. Have you ever tried to wrap a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer? After wrapping it, it still looks like a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer. Secondly, not everyone at the party will be a drinker. There may be a recovering alcoholic among the participants. Can you think of anything worse than giving a bottle of booze to someone struggling with alcohol addiction? It’s not a good look.

4. Above All, Have Fun

The gifts brought to a white elephant party aren’t meant to be serious, so there’s no need to pout if you get a gag gift. Some participants will bring thoughtless duds while others will brings gifts you really want. Whether you get the gift you have your eye on or not, keep your smile on. This party is all in fun, and acting ungrateful or childish will only ruin it for everyone else.

Ever been to a white elephant party? Have a funny story to tell about an awkward moment? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

Aren't white elephant "gifts" supposed to be tacky and useless? That's the whole point!

Guest's picture

Yes! Where I work, we're told to look through our basements and garages to see if there's anything we don't want. I think the author is mixing up "White Elephant" with "Secret Santa."

Mikey Rox's picture

Thanks for the comments! I'm not mixing anything up. It's just that the terms "gift exchange" and "white elephant" are interchangeable where I'm from. I've never been to a white elephant party where the hosts ask us to bring the tackiest gift we can find, just that there's a limit on how much it can cost. Most people bring real gifts. And that's totally different from the secret santa, for sure, when the gift is intended for a specific person. Maybe it's sort of like how people from the East Coast call it soda; Midwesterners call it pop; and everyone from Baltimore calls it Coke, no matter what flavor it is. :)

Guest's picture

yea the place I come from everybody calls toothpaste as colgate.......

Guest's picture

We did a riff on this theme for a recent work-related outing. Awkward already given that it's with coworkers, right? The other awkward thing was that there really only seemed to be 1 'gag' type gift, while the others were all quite nice. There also was no price range set, so you had a big variety in gifts.

If you unwrap a consumable gift, don't get too attached to it! it's one of the more reliable ones, so someone is always looking to 'steal' it.

Guest's picture
Ordinary Knitter

We have a social group of knitters and have turned our White Elephant exchange into a single skein of yarn exchange. We all end up with something useful and we still have the fun of the exchange.

Guest's picture

Go to wikipedia and look up "White elephant"

Julie Rains's picture

Great tips --

down south, we call what you call white elephant, "Dirty Santa" -- b/c of the stealing, I suppose. Finding something novel for these events (I think there will be 3 total for my family this year) is challenging but fun. Our white elephant is exchanging (or selling as a mini-fundraiser), great items that we personally have no use for but are great things and in excellent condition.

btw, one of the parties is a combo Ugly Christmas Sweater + Dirty Santa (though I don't have any ugly sweaters, well -- at least not holiday ones).

Some of my favorite gift items for these come from Rugged Wearhouse -- they have great holiday ties, (occasionally Grinch clothing), etc. Fun yet useful.

Guest's picture

That is Chinese bingo. Used gifts are white elephant.

Guest's picture

In the Midwest- "White Elephant" = tacky, useless, shoved-in-the-basement stuff, you probably got stuck with, at a previous holiday party. "Secret Santa", "Dirty Santa" = is a grab bag steal 'em game- usually with a specified price value.

This year I went to a "white elephant" party. My gag gift was a 20 year old, unused, big terra cotta garlic baker. I thought it was going to be the winner for the #1 tacky gift. The lady who got it loved it. Her husband is quite the cook. Ha, ha, ha- go figure.

Andrea Karim's picture

I would like to add: do not bring sex toys as your White Elephant gift, even though you know that the party host would find it hilarious. I learned this recently from a friend who went to a party that he thought would be filled with young, wild artists that turned out to be attended mostly by older, retired people.

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

Hahaha. I totally thought about adding that, but then I thought - nobody would bring a sex toy, right? Guess I was wrong. However, I would have looooved to be at that party. Sounds like a great time!

Guest's picture

It's called a "chinese gift exchange" out here:)

Guest's picture
Katy Alexis

Our family does a white elephant exchange every year. We do it just like the author describes except we choose to add the rule that it must be consumable. Still, there are certain people you can count on for nice gifts and others that bring gag ones so it's lots of fun. Bright pink duct tape, toilet paper, and a Tupperware full of nails were some of the funny ones last year.