White Elephant Rules: How To Play a White Elephant Gift Exchange Game

If you’re looking for ways to make your next family or office gift exchange more interactive, fun, and downright nonsensical, throw a White Elephant gift exchange! This variation on the traditional game of Secret Santa gets its name from the white elephants that were supposedly vindictively gifted by the King of Siam to anyone who tried to cross him. Legend has it that these beasts, although beautiful, were not very useful—not to mention the astronomical upkeep. And, hence, the White Elephant gift exchange we know and love today… where the practicality of the gifts is secondary to the silliness.

Start a Secret Santa Gift Exchange

If you aren’t familiar with how to play White Elephant, imagine a run-of-the-mill gift exchange, except you’re allowed to steal the Batman coffee mug that Carl just unwrapped if you happen to fancy it more than picking your own mystery gift out from under the tree. Sounds a little wild, right? It’s like being the Grinch and Cindy-Lou-Who at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds—the spirit of giving meets the spirit of taking. It’s naughty and nice. And that’s precisely why it’s so much fun!

All you need is a group of people up for a funny and festive affair, unwrapping some gifts, and who have a heart two sizes too small (okay, just kidding about that last part). Before the exchange, be sure to inform all of the participants of any White Elephant game rules and gift guidelines, like spending limit or themes, so everyone shows up with something at least bordering on appropriate. Then, once everyone arrives, turn on some holiday tunes, pass around the Christmas cookies, and let the games begin!

The White Elephant Game Rules

  1. Send festive invites detailing the particulars of the party.
  2. Bring a wrapped, anonymous gift to the shindig.
  3. Draw numbers to determine who gets to unwrap a present when.
  4. Sit in a circle and place the gifts in the center, preferably under a festive tree.
  5. The person who drew #1 selects a gift from the pile, opens it, and holds it up for all to see.
  6. The person who drew #2 decides whether to steal that gift or unwrap a mystery present from the pile.
  7. The game continues in such a fashion, with each person getting the chance to steal someone’s gift or unwrap their own surprise.
  8. When there are no more unwrapped gifts, the person who drew #1 gets one last turn. If they decide not to steal a gift, keeping the one they have, the game is over. If they do steal a gift, the game continues until someone decides to keep their gift, rather than steal.

How Do You Play White Elephant? The Elves’ Suggested Guidelines

Without a solid set of guidelines, White Elephant exchanges can easily last an eternity. Considering how much fun you’ll be having, you probably wouldn’t mind, but eventually you may want to get back to trimming the trees, decking the halls, and roasting a chestnut or two. Be sure to share these suggestions for how to play White Elephant with the whole group before you start the game so that nobody gets too naughty:

  1. Gifts must be wrapped and anonymous.
  2. Gifts must meet the predetermined criteria (ie. price and theme).
  3. Each gift can only be stolen three times in the game.
  4. Each gift can only be stolen once per turn.
  5. Everyone who has had a turn must have a gift. For example, if you took the first turn and your gift was stolen, you must unwrap a gift. As the game goes on, stealing gifts turns into swapping gifts, so everyone should have a gift at any given time. So, if you take Sally’s box of animal crackers, you’ve got to fork over your squeegee to her.

White Elephant Game Variation Ideas

Last year I was tasked with planning my office White Elephant gift exchange party and was constantly dreaming up ways to make this out-of-the-box game even more unique. In the end, I made it my own by setting certain guidelines for the gifts. There are so many ways you can make the game goofier, so put your Santa hat on and think like an elf!

Here are a few variations that can raise your White Elephant organizer status from anonymous elf straight up to Santa’s favorite helper:

  • Set a theme for the gift exchange: It could be puppies, vacations, or condiments; it doesn’t really matter! The original White Elephant requires that you bring an obscure object that you received as a gift but haven’t used, like maybe the hard-boiled egg slicer your grandmother gave you two Christmases ago. If you don’t want to end up with a bunch of junk though, have participants create online wish lists so that you know you’re bringing a gift that someone in the group will go crazy for, not unlike the abominable snowman who loved… well, nevermind.
  • Don’t unwrap any of the gifts until the end: Add an element of mystery to the game by keeping all the gifts wrapped until the last person takes their turn. You still steal each other’s wrapped gifts, but you have no idea what’s actually inside until you’re stuck with it. Expect a lot of laughter when everybody opens their gift and realizes it isn’t what they guessed it would be. Prank wrapping your gifts makes this variation really funny!
  • Appoint a commentator: A friend of mine who’s a White Elephant fanatic says that having someone comment as the game is in progress adds another level of humor to the madness of it all. Use your best auctioneer or sports commentator voice and get ready to announce the play-by-play. This can also be useful if you have a big group or are hosting a telecommuter office party online, as people may not see all the gifts as they are being opened.
  • Combine Secret Santa and White Elephant exchanges: This may sound crazy, but what if each participant bought a gift for an assigned person (as in a traditional Secret Santa gift exchange), but once everyone opened their gift, you had the chance to swap with others (as in a game of White Elephant). Mind-boggling, right? Using an online Secret Santa Generator will help with the organization so that you can save your brainpower for the game.

Remember, the point of a White Elephant gift exchange is to have fun, not necessarily to end up with the best gift. Sure, it would be great to score that sweet screwdriver with the changeable heads but if you don’t, don’t sweat it. A wise, green, and exceptionally hairy man once taught us that Christmas isn’t about the presents, right? Not everyone gets to walk away from this exchange triumphant, but everyone will most certainly be joyful!

Ready to start a White Elephant, Secret Santa, or White Secret-Elephant Santa combo exchange? We want to help! Elfster’s Secret Santa wish lists, gift guides, and online exchanges make it easy to spread holiday cheer. Sign up for free today and let the festivities begin!

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