What is a White Elephant Gift Exchange?

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Leading into the holiday season, you start to hear all about different parties taking place, and some of those parties come with some fun rules and routines. Perhaps you’ve heard of a White Elephant gift exchange, but you weren’t sure what exactly it was. If you’re curious about what this fun gift exchange is all about, then read on. We’ve got all your questions answered right here!


What is it?

As explained by Roberta Jeeves, author of White Elephant Gift Exchange: Rules, Themes, and Ideas for Hosting a Perfect Holiday Gift Swap, a White Elephant Gift Exchange is a super fun and hilarious gift exchange where each party-goer brings a wrapped gift to the party to exchange. Also known as a Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap, this gift exchange involves some rules in order for it to run successfully, and it can create some hilariously chaotic moments at your holiday party!

Having played this game for several years at my annual holiday work party, I know firsthand how much fun this gift exchange game is and how hilarious it can be once people start “stealing” others’ gifts.

The way that it works is that all of the wrapped gifts start off in the center of the circle – it’s best if everyone is seated in a circle around the gifts so that everyone can watch the action. 

Typically, the guests draw names to see who goes first to pick a gift out of the center; they open the gift once they select it, and the other guests get to see what is inside.

When it is the next person’s turn, they have the option to select a new gift from the center OR steal the gift that the previous person just opened. Now this is where the fun and hilarity begin! The screeches of laughter that would follow a gift being “stolen” is what makes this game so much fun, your sides will hurt from laughing so much!

The first player gets to select a new gift from the center if they had their gift stolen. The game continues until everyone has opened a gift. In order to keep the game moving along smoothly, however, there are a few rules that need to be followed.

What are the rules?

While the rules don’t necessarily have to be super strict, it does help to have some established prior to starting the game, because once the excitement gets going, it can easily derail the game if there aren’t a few key rules in place. Here are some of the rules we typically follow when we play the White Elephant Gift Exchange.

Bring an Anonymous Wrapped Gift

It is important that you bring a wrapped gift to the party and that the gift is anonymous. It’s important that no one knows which gift belongs to who so that it keeps the mystery going. Place your wrapped gift in the center of the circle along with all of the other gifts before the game commences.

Determine Order of Play

Decide who is going to go first and what order you will follow. Usually, the easiest way to do this is to simply draw names out of a hat, or draw numbers with #1 going first and so on. It doesn’t really matter how you determine the order of play, as long as you follow that order once you start so that it is fair for everyone.

Choose a Gift 

When it is your turn, you may choose a gift from the center of the circle. If other gifts have already been opened, and you would like to steal one of those gifts, you may do so for your turn. You can only make one selection during your turn, so choose wisely!

Unwrap Your Gift

If you did not steal a gift, but rather chose one from the center of the pile, then you must unwrap it in front of everyone. It is important to unwrap your gift so that others can see what it is and decide if they want to steal it or not on their turn! We always had tons of fun and laughs trying to pretend we were super disappointed with the gift we got, in hopes that it would deter anyone from stealing it from us! 

Game Variations

As with most games, there are always variations that you can do with your White Elephant Gift Exchange to make it more interesting or more fun, or even just to better suit your get-together. Here are some of the most popular variations to the game. 

Choose a Theme

Sometimes it’s nice to have a theme to follow for your gift exchange, so that all gifts fall under a certain category. One year for our gift exchange, we agreed to all purchase something that can be used in the kitchen. There were some amazing gifts that year, from a Christmas pancake maker to salt & pepper shakers in the shapes of Santa and Mrs. Claus. It can be fun to do a theme, and it also helps give people a targeted gift idea. Another year, we decided to do a Christmas tree ornament theme, and that theme was very popular as well. I still smile when I hang my ornament each year, remembering the battle and the laughs that went on prior to me actually getting to keep my ornament! Some other theme ideas are: animals, travel, self care, and food.

Don’t Unwrap Any of the Gifts Until the End

One variation that really changes how the game plays out is to not unwrap any of the gifts until the end. So, you’re really basing your decision on what you think the gift might be and what wrapping catches your eye. You can still choose to steal someone’s gift, but you won’t be sure of what’s actually inside. If you know you’re playing the game this way, then you may choose to prank wrap your gift to make it harder to guess! 

Three Swaps and You’re Out

I had this happen to me one year – I just kept getting stolen from! Everyone wanted the gifts that I was getting, so I was grateful for the “three swaps and you’re out” rule, so I could finally be safe to keep my prize. The three swaps and you’re out rule means that if you’ve had your gifts stolen from you three times, then you’re out of the game and no one can steal from you anymore.

A Gift Can’t Be Stolen More Than 3 Times

Perhaps there’s a coveted gift that everyone wants, so there’s lots of stealing taking place. If you have put this rule in place, then the gift will only be able to be stolen three times before it remains in the person’s hands. So, if you’re the lucky person who is the third one to steal the gift, then you get to keep it as that gift is officially “retired” from the game. This was a great rule to have the one year we did the Christmas ornaments, as there was a gorgeous tea light set that everyone wanted, so this rule kept the game from lasting for hours while we all fought for the candle set!

What should I buy?

The main thing about this gift exchange is that it is meant to be fun. That being said, you don’t want to give a cheap, thoughtless gift either, because it would take away the fun of people wanting to “steal” the gifts. Put some thought into your gift, stick to the agreed-upon price range and theme (if there is one), and wrap it up nicely. Here are some great White Elephant Gift Exchange ideas:

Funny Gifts

Funny gifts are always a hit, and they will bring a smile to the recipient’s face every time they see it. Funny socks, a cute wine tumbler, or even some humorous home decor would make a nice gift. Make sure the humor is appropriate for everyone who is attending the party, otherwise you may have a gift fail on your hands.

Unique Gifts

Sometimes it’s hard to think of something really unique, but sometimes we come across a gift idea that is very special and something that may be hard to find. Just make sure it isn’t anything too unique that may only suit certain tastes, because you never know who will actually open the gift! But a cool gadget or tool would be a great gift, or perhaps some funky dishes or glasses.

Holiday-themed Gifts

If you decide that your theme is the holidays, then there are tons of great ideas out there! From doormats to mugs, and decor to clothing, there is always something you can find for a holiday-themed gift. Try to choose something that they will actually use, and something that they will enjoy getting out every Christmas.

Practical Gifts

It never hurts to give something that is practical and will get used regularly. I received a set of coffee mugs one year, and to this day they are my favorite mugs to use! Some other practical ideas could be something useful for the kitchen, a neat way to organize your home, a new cookbook to use, or a nice self-care gift to pamper oneself. 

Is it only for Christmas time?

The great thing about this fun gift exchange game is that it can really be used at any time! Any time you are putting together a party where people are going to be bringing gifts, you could plan an exchange like this. Here are some ways that you could incorporate this game into your gift exchange.

End-of-Year Gift Exchange

Are you hosting a New Year’s Eve party? Then perhaps you’d like to add this game into the party plan. Although people don’t typically exchange gifts on New Year’s, this can be a fun event to do to ring in the new year. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, as people will have just finished spending lots over Christmas, however you can still have fun with a simple gift exchange. Have people bring a small token to represent the previous year, wrap it up, and have a blast ringing in the new year by playing this game!

Special Milestone Gift Exchange

Perhaps in your office you are all working toward a special milestone – a deadline, a price point, a certain number of sales, whatever. Once you reach that milestone, have a little party to celebrate and have everyone bring a small gift to play the White Elephant Gift Exchange as a way of celebrating reaching that special milestone.

School Year Ending Gift Exchange

If you’re a teacher like me, perhaps you’re looking for a fun way to celebrate the end of the school year. You could have all of your colleagues bring in a summer-themed gift, and you could all have fun playing the White Elephant gift exchange at your year-end party! It was always with my teacher colleagues that I played this game over the years at Christmastime, and we’d be hooting with laughter throughout the whole thing!

Family Reunion Gift Exchange

Planning a big family reunion? Ask everyone to bring a small gift to play this game once everyone has arrived. You might want to give it a theme, perhaps depending on the time of year or reason for the reunion, that way people would know what type of gift to look for. But, this would make a great game to play once all the family members are together. Guaranteed to have lots of laughs! This video from Studio C shows some of the hilarious family dynamics that can take place during a round of White Elephant! 

Other fun details

There are so many fun variations and rules for this game, really the sky’s the limit! Here are some other fun details to consider when planning your own gift exchange.

Play it Online!

Do you work remotely with your team? Don’t worry, you don’t be left out of this fun! You can even play the White Elephant Gift Exchange online with your team by using this website, White Elephant Online. It lets you create your own virtual gift-giving party, so no one misses out!

Combine It With Secret Santa

Add an element of mystery to your game by also incorporating the Secret Santa type of gift giving. The way that this variation works is everyone brings a gift for a specific someone, just like the traditional Secret Santa. However, once all of the gifts have been opened, then you begin the White Elephant portion of the game where guests can opt to “steal” other people’s gifts instead. More hilarity to ensue for sure! 

Appoint Someone as Commentator

Just like in sports games, this gift exchange can get pretty heated and exciting! Why not appoint a guest to be the sports commentator of the game? Add to the hilarious activity by having someone commenting on what’s happening throughout the game. Having them comment play-by-play will have you screeching with laughter!

No matter how you play the White Elephant gift exchange or what variations you choose to incorporate, you’re sure to have a hilariously fun time with your friends, colleagues, and/or family members. Which way do you like to play the game? Have you tried any of the variations listed here? Be sure to come back and tell us any new rules or variations that you have discovered, and happy gift giving!