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White Elephant Gift Exchange Guide

A white elephant gift exchange (also known as the Yankee Swap) can be the perfect way to enjoy a fun holiday affair without spending tons of money on gifts. In particular, this can be a great option for casual friends, coworkers or extended family.


Never done a white elephant gift exchange before? Don’t worry, it’s easy to plan and coordinate. This step-by-step guide will lead you through all the steps of hosting a white elephant gift exchange.

Let Guests Know the Drill

The key to a successful white elephant gift exchange is to make sure all the participants know what to bring. With the white elephant gift exchange, the tradition is to gift something unusual, tacky, funny or silly. Usually, you set a relatively low dollar limit (say $5, $10 or $15) to make sure the gifts are all of similar value. However, many people encourage participants to choose an item from around the house to gift – in many cases, a gift they once received that they don’t want.

Make sure participants know that each gift should be wrapped with no name tag on it, and that each person should bring only one item. Some hosts encourage unusual or difficult wrapping for an extra touch of fun.

Learn the Rules

When it’s time for your white elephant gift exchange, you’ll need to inform everyone of the rules before you begin.

Start by taking a total head count (which should match the number of gifts). Write down those numbers on slips of paper and have everyone choose a slip out of a hat. The numbers determine the order in which guests will choose a gift. Then, follow these rules:

  1. Person #1 gets to choose and open the first gift.
  2. From there, every person after gets to choose whether they want to open a gift or steal a gift that’s already been opened. If they steal a gift, the person whose gift they stole may choose to steal or open a gift, and so on until someone chooses to open a gift.
  3. When the last person has taken their turn, the choice goes back to Person #1 again. This person gets to choose whether to keep the gift they have or steal someone else’s (the reason being that they did not have the option of stealing at the beginning). Once that turn is over, the game ends.

Fun Variations

Many people like to add fun variations to the game to make it their own, or to just add another fun feature to the event. Here are some of those options:

  • Once an item has been stolen three times, it is “frozen” or “dead,” meaning that it cannot be stolen any more.
  • Similarly, you can have a person “freeze” rather than the gift itself being frozen. In this situation, once a person has been stolen from three times, the next gift they choose is the one they keep – no one can steal it from them.
  • For more mystery, consider keeping all the gifts wrapped until the end. The rules of stealing and freezing items can still apply, but no one knows what they got until all the gifts are opened at the end.
  • Some white elephant gift exchanges have a theme. For example, you could bring funny holiday decorations or holiday music. Some people really enjoy trying to bring “bad” gifts – ugly, weird or simply funny gifts that are more for a gag than for actual use.
  • For an added twist include a card with each gift with special instructions. For example, a card may allow you one free trade outside of your turn or a ban on having your gift stolen. These add an extra element of surprise and complexity to the game.

White Elephant Benefits

For many people, a white elephant gift exchange is a great way to save money. This is especially true if you have participants bring in an item they already own. It helps stop some of the unnecessary spending at the holidays. For example, when an office does a white elephant gift exchange, it removes the pressure of having to buy gifts for your boss and coworkers (and having to decide which people you should buy something for). Instead it shifts the focus to having fun with people you care about, and the stress of finding work-appropriate gifts goes out the window.

In addition to saving money, however, many people overlook just how much fun a white elephant party can be. Instead of silently watching as each person opens a gift, many participants are actively involved in every turn. It’s fun to encourage participants to shout out whether a person should open a gift or steal, and many a laugh can be had over gifts that keep getting stolen. In short, it’s a memorable, inclusive way to enjoy the holidays with others.


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