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How to Host the Perfect White Elephant Party

Folks on the East Coast call it a “Yankee Swap.” Down South, it’s called a “Dirty Santa.” For the rest of the country, however, there’s a holiday tradition known as a “White Elephant Party” that’s been going on for more than 100 years (give or take).

A White Elephant party is a whimsical gift exchange where all the guests bring low-value presents that range from the merely quirky to the wildly outrageous, and participants take turns selecting (and stealing) the goodies in turn. 

If you’re thinking of organizing your own White Elephant holiday bash, this comprehensive guide will help walk you through the intricacies of hosting an unforgettable event. Here’s how to host one ─ and have fun doing it!

Set the Stage with Clear Invitations

White Elephant parties are supposed to be fun, low-key affairs, so make it clear from the start that you fully intend for hijinks and hilarity to ensue – but make sure that everybody understands the rules. 

There are a couple of different directions you can go:

  • Re-Gifts: You can tell your guests to bring the worst, least enviable “gift” they can find among their existing possessions – like that velvet Elvis painting from Grandma Sue that’s been tucked in the attic lo these many years. Think of anything along the lines of the “Bob Ross Chia Pet” variety, and you’ve got the idea.
  • Useful, but Unwanted: This may be arguably more practical, but maybe less fun. That being said, the idea here is that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Tell your guests to dig out something they no longer want that is still “too good to throw away.” Maybe a working teapot that no longer has a spot in someone’s home, crocheted blankets that are the wrong colors for the household decor and Art that is not the preferred style of the present owner.
  • Wacky, Tacky or Weird: This is the most popular way to play the game. Every guest searches for the most delightfully absurd gift they can find, just for laughs, whether it’s “pizza socks” or a “People of Walmart” calendar. Since this involves buying something new, make sure that you set a dollar limit or range so that everybody is on the same page.

You may also want to let your guests know if “adult-themed” gifts are acceptable – or not. If this is a family event, a party at work or one with children present, it’s always wise to actively steer folks away from that direction. Otherwise, you may end up with “Naughty Elf Pictures” as one of the gifts.

Make sure that your guests know that every gift must be wrapped and without any tags to identify the giver, since trying to guess what somebody brought is part of the fun.

Elevate the Ambiance with a Theme

Choosing a theme for your party can add an extra layer of excitement. Encourage guests to leap into the holiday spirit by adding a festive dress code. Some theme ideas include “Ugly Christmas Sweaters,” “Holiday Pajamas,” and “Wacky Elf or Santa Hats.” (This also gives you plenty of opportunities for blackmail-worthy photos, so take advantage.)

Opt for a potluck-style gathering to make party planning more manageable. You can provide the booze and the main spread, but ask your guests to bring their favorite holiday dish or snack to share. This not only adds a variety of flavors to the menu but also fosters a stronger sense of community and collaboration and can help get people talking. 

Go Over the Rules and Start the Swap

Now we get to the good, old-fashioned “stealing and swapping” that’s the heart of the party. Get your guests together and go over the rules, especially if you have any first-timers present. 

Typically, the game works like this: 

  • Everybody draws numbers from a hat to decide the order in which they select their gifts.
  • The first person picks any gift they want from the pile and opens it.
  • The second person can then “steal” the first gift or pick one that’s unopened.
  • Each subsequent guest gets to swipe any of the previously opened gifts or open a new one.
  • All gifts can only be “stolen” three times before it becomes “safe.”
  • Whoever went first also goes last, which means they can keep what they have in their hands at that moment or steal a gift from some other hapless soul.

Sustain the energy with a variety of games and icebreakers. Incorporate rounds of holiday-themed trivia or a “Guess the Giver” game, where participants try to identify who brought each gift. These activities enhance the overall experience and provide additional opportunities for laughter and bonding.

Have Additional Prizes for the Best or the Worst

Cheap white elephant figurines are easy to find, so get one and have it ready. Have your guests vote on what they feel is the most hilarious or awful present and award the recipient the “Coveted White Elephant” as a trophy. 

If you plan to make your party an annual thing, it’s that guest’s responsibility to bring the trophy back the following year to pass on to the next lucky (or luckless) winner. This can become an endearing holiday tradition among families and tight-knit groups of friends. 

Since you’ve made this party a themed event, you also need a door prize for the ugliest sweater, cutest pajamas or tackiest hat – whatever you’ve decided in advance. Keep in mind that the prize doesn’t have to be anything big. A box of chocolate or a nice bottle of wine is more than sufficient and in keeping with the low-stakes holiday atmosphere.

Hosting the perfect White Elephant party is an art that combines the spirits of fun, camaraderie and laughter. From playful invitations to unique gift ideas and entertainment, every element contributes to a memorable experience for your guests. So, gather your friends and family, unwrap the joy and let the White Elephant festivities begin!