White Elephant Gift Exchange: What are the Rules & How Do I Play?

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Sure, Secret Santa is great, but what about stepping it up a notch with a more thrilling and hilarious way of doing gift exchange?

The White Elephant Gift Exchange is a gift exchange almost like Secret Santa but with a somewhat sneaky twist.

Sounds like fun? It is.

Find out more about how you can bring the white elephant into the room at your Christmas party and shake up the gift-giving process in an amusing way with the White Elephant Gift Exchange.

How to Play White Elephant

How to Play White Elephant Gift Exchange

It’s simple – you need a group of people open for fun at the expense of others.

Everyone buys a random gift – usually to a certain value – and add it to the gift pile. Your guests will be given a number and gift selections will follow that process.


Anyone who is about to pick a gift can steal one from someone who has already opened one. Of course, this means that the person whose gift you took will need to choose a new one – either wrapped or a gift that’s already been opened. You need to surrender your gift if it’s being stolen, leaving you open to pick another one from the pile!

Be sure to properly communicate the rules of the game to your guests beforehand so that they know what they’re in for. Although awkward moments are never a bad thing in a White Elephant game! Share some eggnog and Christmas cookies and get the party started.

White Elephant Gift Exchange Rules

A quick rule recap:

  • Everybody needs to bring a wrapped gift worth no more than a specified amount.
  • Make sure that the gifts are wrapped and don’t have any names on them – secrecy is key!
  • Numbers are drawn to determine who goes first and who follows next. You can change this and use the spin the bottle technique to choose who goes next.
  • Person Number 1 chooses a random gift from the pile and unwraps it. Person Number 2 has the option to steal the unwrapped gift or open a new one.
  • If your gift is stolen, you can choose another gift from the pile.
  • There’s a maximum of 2 steals per gift, ie a gift can only be stolen twice before it’s locked in.
  • The game ends once everyone has a gift.
  • Optional: The gift exchange game can continue with guests being given the option to steal a gift, although this can be rather time-consuming.

Shake Up The Rules

The beauty of the White Elephant gift exchange is that you can really shake up the rules to suit your party – or your friends. Here are some additional fun twists to add to the basic White Elephant rules:

  • Get the Gift Out

    Implement a 3 swap only rule for the gift. Once it’s been through 3 steals, it’s out of the game. This makes it all the more high stakes!

  • No Extra Swapping

    The first player is not allowed to swap at the end, or if they are allowed to, that’s it! No more swaps when they’re done.

  • Blind Swap

    If a person has a gift but wants to swap it, they must pick a number of a guest that has yet to open a gift and take whatever they choose.

  • Add a Theme

    As a Christmas game, White Elephant gift exchange is easy to adapt to a theme. The organizer can set a theme and tell everyone participating to bring gifts that match it.

  • Stick to Funny Gifts

    If you want to add even more humour to proceedings, ask guests to pick a gift that’s funny. Gag gifts or any other amusing item can be included.

  • Hang On To The Hideous

    Add a real twist to this gift exchange by challenging players to find the most revolting, kitsch or hideous gift they can possibly find. Then, make a rule that everyone needs to display whatever gift they end up with in a prominent place in their home for a full year!

  • Play With A Riddle

    Players must decipher a riddle to be able to pick a gift. If this sounds too tough, you can create a story with instructions that tells them when they’ll get a chance to play.

Why is it called White Elephant Gift Exchange?

White Elephant toy

While this fun Christmas gift exchange game has other names, like Dirty Santa and Yankee Swap, White Elephant seems to be the most popular. But what’s the game got to do with elephants? Or even the colour white?

Legend has it that the King of Siam (now Thailand) would give white elephants to anyone who had displeased him, in the hopes that the high cost of handling the white animal would bankrupt them.

Receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favour. But it was also a curse because the holy animals weren’t allowed to be worked and required special, expensive food and housing. The unlucky recipient was left with an expensive-to-maintain animal he couldn’t give away or put to much practical use, making the elephant a financial burden.

Today the term “white elephant” refers to an extravagant but impractical gift that’s more of a burden than anything else. The useless possession is also difficult to get rid of, which is where the modern-day Christmas swapping gift exchange game takes its name.

Other Christmas Gift Exchange Games

Women exchanging Christmas gifts

While the White Elephant game is fun, there are other similar gift exchange games that are just as enjoyable but follow a different format. As with White Elephant, you can change the rules as you deem fit, just make sure that you communicate them to your party guests.

Guess the gift: There are a few ways to go about this, but we’ll stick to the two obvious ones. This is either limited to a person guessing what their gift is before opening it, or having the entire group taking a guess, with the winner receiving the gift.

You can make it more difficult by bring a wrapped gift that is wrapped in a way that doesn’t make any sense and gives a false sense of what it is.

Pass the parcel: It’s time to go back to your youth and play pass the parcel. The rules are simple. Pass the gift around until the music stops. When it stops, the person holding it needs to remove a layer of wrapping.

Music begins again and so it goes on until the gift is finally revealed.

Auction game: Using Monopoly money – or real money if you’re brave enough – have guests bid against gifts. Highest bid wins and the gift goes to them. If you are using real money, the money raised can go into a pool for a fun activity during the holidays.

Secret Santa: The secret santa is a format of gift exchange that is widely known and practised around the world. Have people create wish lists and randomly assign someone to gift to. Make sure that are no repeats. Everyone gives a gift and gets a gift too. And if your Santa is good, you might get the top item on your wish list!

Game On!

It’s that time of year. The family’s all here and ready to spread some festive cheer – the rhyming was purely coincidental, we swear!

Jokes and rhymes aside, there are plenty of games you can play this festive season. With the rise of Christmas parties and family gatherings, the need for fun and interactive games to keep the feel-good spirit going is much needed.

Forget Secret Santa gift exchange, it’s time to get adventurous with some gift-related gaming mayhem this festive season. Play White Elephant Gift Exchange and change the rules to suit you, and watch the mayhem ensure. Your guests are guaranteed to have a good time no matter what gift they take home. And the laughs that they’ll have are sure to linger, as will the rivalries that arose that will make next year’s party even more entertaining.

Wherever you may be and whatever you’re getting up to, we hope that you have a truly amazing festive season with a memorable gift exchange!

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