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What is a White Elephant Gift: Great Ideas for the Next Party

Written by Nicholas Crusie — October 09, 2020

Holiday parties are right around the corner, and whether they occur virtually or in person, you may be asked to bring a Dirty Santa or White Elephant gift.  If you’ve never heard of these types of gift exchanges before, they can be a little confusing.  Are they the same? And if so, how?  Get this wrong, and you could really end up embarrassing yourself and your date, and if this is a work-related party, things could get ugly fast.  

We’re here to help.  First off, both Dirty Santa and White Elephant are types of gift exchanges that work like a game.  Both involve each person bringing one gift and leaving with one gift.  The way they are played is also extremely similar.  If you’re from the United Kingdom, you may play a similar gift exchange game referred to as Yankee Swap.  

All three of these are basically variations of the same game.  The game is played like this:

  • Each person that plans to participate in the game is asked to bring an unmarked, individually wrapped gift to be exchanged.  The gifts are placed in a pile in the middle of the room or on a table. 

  • Numbers are drawn according to how many people are participating.  

  • Play begins when the person who has drawn the number one takes a gift.  The person who has the number one gets to select any gift from the pile and open it.  He must show the gift to everyone in the room.

  • The person who has drawn the number two goes next.  This time, he has the option to either “steal” the gift that the first player has opened, or select one from the pile.  

  • If number two opens a new gift, his round has finished, and play then passes to the player that has drawn number three.  

  • If number two decides to steal the gift that number one has opened, he takes number one’s gift, and his turn is over.  Play then passes back to number one, who gets to select a gift from the pile.

  • Once number one has opened the gift, play passes to the person who has drawn number three.  Number three may opt to select a gift from the pile or steal a gift from number one or number two.  

  • Play continues in this fashion until the last number has been called.

There are usually certain family-specific or region-specific rules governing how many times a particular gift can be stolen, and how the game is finished.  For instance, a popular variation of the game is that any one gift can only be stolen three times.  This means that once the gift has passed into the third person’s hands, it is no longer available for stealing and the person who holds it now owns the gift. 

Additionally, ending play can have different rules.  Some people choose to end the game when the last person either steals a gift or opens it. However, others allow the player who chose number one to have the last option of “stealing” a gift, and that officially ends the game.

As you can imagine, gameplay can be pretty intense and, depending on the value of the gift, can get pretty competitive.  White Elephant exchanges are typically the highlight of holiday parties and can be incredibly good fun.  The person who brings a gift that is highly sought after is essentially holiday party royalty, and the person who leaves with the said gift has bragging rights for the entire year.  

So how can you make sure you’re bringing something amazing to the table and not a dud that no one wants?  We can help.  First of all, there are a few simple rules to follow when determining what not to bring to the White Elephants exchange.

White Elephant Exchange:  What Not to Bring

When it comes to selecting the perfect white elephant gift, the key is to find something useful, unique, and usable by all people who attend.  This can make finding a quality gift pretty tricky, as your party guests may be of differing ages, sexes, and, obviously, personality types.  Here are a few rules to follow to make sure you don’t show up with the wrong thing.  

  • Stay gender-neutral.  We’re all about being PC, but there are some things the opposite sex will not be able to use.  Toiletry sets, undergarments, articles of clothing, hair products, and the like should all be avoided.


  • Off-color humor.  Unless you’re very close with this group of people and are 100% certain the gift would be appreciated, it’s best to leave the potty humor for another day.


  • Items from your home.  If you don’t want it, chances are no one else does either.  Don’t be the person who brings used gifts to the party.

If you’ve still got questions, it’s best to ask the host.  Some white elephant exchanges have a dollar amount, and some are designed for the most awkward or unique find possible.  Make sure you know the rules of the game, so you don’t show up with a toilet bowl putting set when everyone else has brought gift cards for dinners out or nice bottles of wine.  

Ideas for the Best White Elephants Gifts

Once you’ve got the inside scoop from the host, you can start shopping.  In general terms, the most successful white elephant gifts are items that can be used by virtually anyone and are unique, useful, and well made.  These don’t need to be expensive; they just need to feature a great design that anyone would love.  Here are some great ideas for white elephant gift giving.

  • A device stand.  This year would’ve come to a full stop, were it not for our devices and the ability to telecommute and learn to do virtually everything in a virtual world.  As such, we’ve learned to handle parent/teacher meetings, conference calls, birthday parties, and wine nights separately together by connecting to one another on our devices.  

    One of the biggest needs when using a device is the ability to use it hands-free.  The best way to do this is by using a device stand.  A device stand, like the PUK multi-device stand, can hold your device safely and securely in place so that it’s easy to see.  The PUK is capable of holding any device, in any size or type of case, which makes it a great option for a white elephant gift because it isn’t device-specific.  You can also use it in both landscape and portrait mode, and charge your device while it’s in use.  

    The PUK features a nice little bonus, too.  When it isn’t in use as a device holder, it can be flipped over and used as a coaster.  This is the type of gift that will quickly be “stolen” until it can be stolen no more.

    • Unique gift cards.  Gift cards may seem impersonal, but they’re always appreciated.  A white elephant gift swap is a great setting for gift cards because they can generally be used by anyone.  Consider giving a gift card that is unexpected.  Instead of the standard coffee shop special, opt for a tea room or local roaster’s shop.  

    You can also give the gift of comfort by selecting a gift card for companies that sell high-quality, comfort-related products.  A gift card for the world’s greatest bean bag chair won’t break the bank, but it will introduce the recipient to the most comfortable and versatile chair they’ve ever owned.  

    • Beverages.  Everyone loves a great bottle of wine or a nice, aged whiskey.  If your crowd is underage or are mostly non-drinkers, consider elegant sparkling waters or handcrafted mixed fruit drinks.  Make this a complete gift by adding in a set of wine glasses or a set of PUK coasters/device holders to be used along with the gift.  


    • Calendars.  The epitome of usefulness, a hard copy calendar (desk or wall) for the upcoming year is always an appreciated gift.  Look for designs that speak to the group of people playing in the white elephant exchange.  If it’s your coworkers, a work-meme-related calendar might be fun.  If it’s your family, an awkward family photos rendition may get a laugh. 


    • Movie tickets.  A great white elephant gift to bring that doesn’t require much thought and will be appreciated is a set of movie tickets.  This allows the recipient to decide what kind of movie they’d like to see and when they’d like to use the tickets.  Since many movie theatres may not be open this year, consider giving a digital movie gift card so your recipient can catch a flick at home.  

      If you really want to go all out, consider throwing in a device holder so your recipient can watch their digital movie wherever they want, with the convenience of being able to prop their device up safely and securely.  


      In Summary


      White elephant gift exchanges are a great time, and you can ensure you bring a great gift by showing up with something unique and solutions-based.  Consider giving the gift of comfort or giving a tool that helps solve a problem.  If you follow our dos and don’ts guide, you can’t go wrong.