It’s Okay to Hate the White Elephant Gift Exchange

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Here we are again. Holiday Season is the time for White Elephant games.

I spent five years trying to like the White Elephant gift exchange. Five more boycotting it. And now I’m in the stage of trying to figure out how I can just deal with it without becoming homicidal.

Everyone has a cause. Some people want to save the boobs. Some people want to end world hunger. I want to banish all White Elephant gift exchanges.

Two rights don’t make a bigger right.

The origin of this game is unclear. But it sure looks like someone thought, “Hey, gifts are fun and games are fun – let’s put them together.”

But gift giving and competition are opposite concepts. Giving (and receiving) is a mostly altruistic act. It is designed to show someone that you care for them. Competition is designed to show others that you’re out for yourself.

Gift exchanging should be enjoyable.

When you choose a gift for someone, you do it with them in mind. When you choose a gift for a White Elephant game, you do it with yourself in mind. You choose a gift that you would be happy getting. But you have no certainty that the final receiver will enjoy it.

And it is likely that your gift will get re-gifted in another White Elephant exchange if they don’t like it. So there is little inspiration for choosing a gift to bring.

Receiving a gift is accepting someone’s feelings about you in a tangible form. It’s learning how someone perceives you.

Receiving a gift at a White Elephant game holds neither of these. If you win a gift that you like, you perceive yourself as a winner. If you win someone’s “joke gift” or something you have no use or excitement around, you’re a loser. You give yourself the consolation prize of, “I can re-gift this.”

We have totally lost the beauty of giving and receiving with the White Elephant game.

Yankee Crap Swap - Christmas 2009
Image by IronHide via Flickr

The contest rules are squirrely.

You can find the rules for playing the game online. But there are no rules for winning the game. A game implies competition. Competition implies a winner and a loser.

If there’s a White Elephant game on the planet where everyone walks away a winner, I’ll kiss your ass.

Because everyone buys what they would like, everyone’s idea of winning is different.

Sister and I were commiserating on our upcoming family White Elephant party. She was complaining that a few years ago she got the shaft with a crap present. The present she had labeled as crap, I had been interested in. She pointed out the very cool gift that she brought last year. I viewed her very cool gift as a crap gift.

Best Friend’s family tends to compete in another direction. They try to see who can bring the coolest gift. The competition, in this case, has switched from receiving to giving. But the problem still remains. Everyone measures on a different scale. There are no winners because there is no clear criteria.

Yankee Crap Swap - Christmas 2009
Image by IronHide via Flickr

And then there’s the intentional crap gift.

Occasionally some jackass will buy a joke gift that’s no fun to anyone. I don’t understand if they believe they are truly being funny, or if it’s their way to boycott the party. Perhaps the White Elephant game is so frustrating to them that they feel the need to retaliate.

This game is a fat naked Emperor walking down the street. And I’m the little kid pointing. The White Elephant Gift Exchange is no fun. Sure, sometimes you walk away with something you’re interested in. But what’s the emotional damage?

Competition is competition. Giving and receiving is about how people feel about one another. Can we please just leave it at that?

What do you think? Have you been damaged by White Elephant game? Please share in the comments.

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15 Responses to It’s Okay to Hate the White Elephant Gift Exchange
  1. Tammy
    December 14, 2010 | 8:52 am

    I understand that this is not your cup of tea but I think you are putting too much emphasis on the gift and not the event. I know in my family, it is about the laughs and the stealing. People you wouldn’t expect to “steal”, are suddenly in the mix. I don’t care what I get but I love to gear up for the hour or so of stealing, good natured arguing/teasing and just general loudness that our White Elephant event creates. My family resorted to this because of $ — nobody can afford to buy for everybody but everybody can afford one gift. So you still get to unwrap but you get the added benefit of not having to be polite like your parents taught you. You can trade/steal a present; laugh or groan at what you got; or hold it to your chest, chanting mine mine mine — STAY AWAY!!! None of which is generally allowed when receiving a present.

    • Idearella
      December 22, 2010 | 4:22 am

      I appreciate your thoughts, and can see where you’re coming from, Tammy.

      I just don’t see why people can get together without the gift giving. If you want the gaming fun, why not just play games?

  2. dmonet
    December 14, 2010 | 2:58 pm

    ahhh…. but I find it so interesting to see what gifts become the hot item! And it’s usually that weird obnoxious joke gift that everyone is going crazy for. Remind me to tell you my hysterical story of the work white elephant game, the “chick magnet” t-shirt and how I made my boss fall off her chair laughing.

    • Idearella
      December 22, 2010 | 4:26 am

      I’m dying to know!

      Indeed, there are many moments in a White Elephant gift exchange that are fun, and funny. I received a Shake Weight at our office party. When I looked in the bag I thought it was a Mr. Buzz.

      And my use of the tool immediately out-of-the-box got quite a few laughs.

      Thanks for your comment, dmonet!

  3. Ysbaddaden
    December 17, 2010 | 1:14 pm

    I’m for enlarging the boobs.

  4. Julianna
    December 19, 2010 | 12:55 pm

    I’m with you OP. I just got invited to one. I am dreading it. I’d rather sing kareoke on the roof with three siamese cats at midnight. It “is” a competition. The first and last one I ever went to was called a Chinese gift exchange. Had the same rules as White Elephant. No one kept to the $5.00 limit but myself. I brought a $3.00 precious moments type figurine. (It was all women at this one). The other co workers brought items way more than what was agreed upon. All the boxes were of various sizes. Mine being the smallest. Naturally everyone went for the “big box” items. My gift was chosen last and yes “everybody” saw me place it there. The co worker that opened…her face spoke volumes…she couldn’t wait to get rid of it. I hate this…lets just go back to grab bag. You reach in a bag and grab something and that one is yours…you can all go home and laugh about it, not knowing where it came from. I am trying find a way to get out of it…or arrive after all the hulabaloo.

    • Idearella
      December 20, 2010 | 5:36 am

      UGH! I’m so sorry, Juliana.

      I’m wondering if a $X.xx Visa gift card isn’t the best idea. If everyone starts giving those then we might finally get the picture, “Just buy something nice for yourself and come here to enjoy it.”

      Please post back after it’s done and share what happened, Juliana. Maybe that will ease some of the pain.

      (BTW, I got a Shake Weight at the office party!)

  5. cmtsquared
    December 21, 2010 | 2:56 pm

    If you don’t like it don’t particicpate! Period. It is about having fun with family and friends. While expressing your disdain for the game you forgot to mention that this activity isn’t the only gift giving that occurs. You have siblings, step-siblings, your mother, your father, your step-mother, your husband, your husband’s family and many friends and co-workers. There are the regular gifts, the name drawing gifts, gifts from family members, gifts from friends, gifts from co-workers and most likely unexpected gifts from people you don’t know. Knowing all of the bounty that will most likely be given to you with such an extended family and all of your ranting about NOT getting a usable/sincere gift makes me wonder how greedy can one person be.

    • Idearella
      December 22, 2010 | 4:20 am

      Thanks for your comment, cmtsquared.

      Clearly you haven’t gotten the point of this post. It’s not about receiving gifts. It’s about trying to give a gift that the receiver will love. You can’t give a gift that the receiver will love if you don’t know who the receiver is. Furthermore, when you combine competition with gift giving, you negate them both.

      I would much prefer to not receive anything and have everything that I give be opened with squeals of joy and, “This is exactly what I wanted for so long!”

      • cmtsquared
        December 23, 2010 | 11:32 am

        Obviously you don’t even remember what you wrote in your earlier blogs:

        Why It’s Better to Receive Than to Give!

        I think that sort of says it all! Besides, you clearly don’t get the point of the white elephant as it is nothing more than a additional activity to the regular gift giving.

        • whpgrl519
          December 23, 2010 | 6:23 pm

          Did you even read the previous post you cited? It has
          nothing to do with greed. If anything it is more about the desire
          to be loved. We are all looking for acceptance, to be appreciated.
          Whether it is from your mother, siblings, step siblings, even
          friends…when you give a gift you want that person to love it and
          in a way accept and love you. If the person has a sour or
          dissapointed look on thier face you feel yucky and it seems,
          although they are family, like they can’t stand to even look at
          you. This has happened to me. Psychologically it is damaging and
          honestly when I think back I would rather not have gotten any gift
          then to have a gift I gave be regarded with such disdain.

        • Idearella
          December 27, 2010 | 7:57 pm

          Obviously you didn’t READ what I wrote in the earlier post. Sarcasm is one of the elements of Idearella that we cherish.

  6. mike
    February 9, 2011 | 10:15 am

    i feel your pain.. they do this at my day job just before christmas. it started small when i started working here 6 years ago.. as the company grew, the gift exchange got out of control.

    half the gifts are either a bottle of alcohol or a case of beer. i’d rather just buy my own bottle, than sit through the 3 hour fiasco….

    save the boobs!

    • Idearella
      February 10, 2011 | 5:07 am

      I remember the days when parents would come to a Christmas party and bring their kid a gift so that the Santa could give it to them. Why can’t we do that? Bring your own gift to the company party and then everyone can see a different side of you.

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. Come to Houston, and I’ll buy you a beer!

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