How to Throw a White Elephant Party



It might be the only opportunity to unload that single of Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy or to drop a bill on a calendar of men with excessive body hair. Why subject your holiday party guests to bad gifts? For starters it’s funny. If you’re looking to introduce friends or break the ice at corporate gathering, a round of gag gift giving between semi-strangers is a perfect entre and it’s also super budget-friendly. (I can guarantee I wasn’t the first recipient of the scratched, unwrapped DVD of “Mr. Belvedere” I got last year at a White Elephant party, but I wasn’t complaining.) If you haven’t been invited to a White Elephant party this year, maybe it’s time you hosted your own. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a White Elephant party?

The term White Elephant describes something that’s more trouble than it’s worth. Many credit Ezra Cornell, the guy behind the telegraph, for coining the term. He’s believed to have dropped the comic insult at various 19th century parties when someone would give the host doozy of a gift. These days, it describes a kind of gift exchange with a twist. The gifts are all doozies and the recipients are encouraged to trade out the prizes they choose. All in all, it’s a chance to live out every party etiquette ‘don’t’, with the exception of the lampshade on the head.

The Basics

White Elephant parties are about breaking all the rules, but there are some straightforward regulations to follow if you want to throw your event without a hitch. Invite six or more people. The gift exchange works best when there’s a pile of mystery gifts to work with. Set the guidelines. In your invitation, request people bring one gift, under a certain amount of money ($10 is plenty, but you can even increase the challenge and lower the budget to $1 or insist on re-gifts only). Arrange the presents. Make sure everyone brings their gifts wrapped and unmarked so they remain anonymous. Then arrange a pile of the gifts in one place. Draw names. Put every guest’s name in a hat and allow the first name drawn to pick the first gift from the pile. Now let that person draw the second name (and so forth.) Let the stealing begin. The second person drawn has a choice: pick another unopened gift from the pile or snag the gift the first person already opened. If they choose to “steal” from any person who came before them, they forfeit the right to open a new gift. As people continue to have their names drawn, they can steal any of the previously opened gifts instead of unwrapping new ones. Prevent epic battles. Sometimes, there’s a gift that everyone wants. It happens, especially when the majority of guests bring inflatable fruitcake and dog whistles. To prevent the night from becoming a feeding frenzy, include a “maximum” amount of times a gift can be stolen, so it doesn’t keep floating around the room while the rest of the gifts remain unopened. Come full circle. Are all the gifts opened? It’s only fair the first person to play has a chance to “steal a gift too”. They can pick any previously opened gift as long as it hasn’t been “stolen” beyond the maximum amount of times.

The Variations

Not everyone decided to draw names from a hat. You can have everyone pick a number and follow the order from one on. If your party is small enough you can sit in a circle and go around opening/stealing gifts from left to right. You can also require a gift theme based, for example food-based products only, or dollar store items.

The Invitations


The elephant doesn’t lie. As White Elephant parties have gotten more popular, a host of stylized invites have begun cropping up on the web. But choose wisely, the look of your invitation will dictate the type of gifts your guests will bring. If you’re invited to a party with a sleek elephant like the one from Paper Culture, prepare to spend a little extra dough on the wrapping paper. If you’re elephant is a little goofier looking, go ahead wrap your gift in the Sunday comics. For more print and email-able options, check out what Hallmark and Zazzle have to offer.

Gift ideas

Go with gag. The only rule with White Elephant gifts: wackier, the better. See this nose-shaped pepper mill? Perfect.

NosePepper Nose Pepper Mill: $22

Too expensive? How about this finger-stache kit? Check out some more gag gift ideas here.

fingersta Finger-stache: $7.99

Check for stocking stuffers at your chain retailers. At Forever 21, Old Navy, or H&M, you can grab under $10 gifts that people might actually use. Okay, these Old Navy socks may not be the most flattering footsies, but they’re probably really cozy.

socks Chenille socks: $4

Raise the stakes. If you want to ratchet up the drama as host, you can also throw in a really covetable gift. Say, a $15 gift card to iTunes.


iTunes gift card: $15 Bury the treasure. Added bonus: if you package the prize in an unsavory envelope, amidst a sea of oversize, garishly wrapped, totally useless gifts, you’ll really mess with your guests. Hey, isn’t that what holiday parties all about? 


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