White elephant parties are sometimes confused with secret Santa parties, but there are differences in the rules. Secret Santa parties require each participant to draw the name of another randomly, but white elephant party gifts are exchanged without a particular person in mind.
While people pick secret Santa gifts with the recipient’s personality and interests in mind, the most popular white elephant gift ideas are lighthearted, funny, and likely to attract the attention of many people regardless of gender, profession, or hobbies.
Instructions for Your Party Participants
White elephant gift exchanges are lighthearted events that emphasize the fun of selecting a gift according to the paper it’s wrapped in or the shape and size of the package.
The goal isn’t to walk away with a valuable gift that you will use in daily life, though that often happens. The goal is simply to have fun with a gift exchange between colleagues, friends, or loved ones.
First, each participant receives a white elephant party invitation that asks them to bring one gift that fits the following criteria:
- Fits the white elephant party theme – Themed white elephant parties are popular because they establish some parameters for gift giving. For instance, you may ask each person to select a fun Christmas tree ornament as the gift. Some people prefer not to have a theme, opening the door to creative gift ideas.
- Suitable for the intended audience – Some white elephant parties are adult in nature and encourage gag gifts not suitable for children. Others ask their participants to keep their gifts appropriate for a family audience or simply note that children may participate in the exchange.
- Under a specified purchase price – White elephant gifts typically cost $20 or less. Setting a price limit ensures that all gifts are of about the same value. That places the emphasis clearly on fun rather than value while allowing those with limited funds to participate comfortably.
- Wrapped but not labeled – Make it clear that a random person will open each gift. Participants should not put their names on the gifts or label it for a particular person.
Note that the rule is one gift per guest. If you allow your guests to bring dates or their families, each additional person will need to bring a separate present.
For example, if John is invited to the company Christmas party and wants to bring his wife and two children, they would need to bring four gifts to the party. That ensures that every person involved receives a gift in the end.
Standard White Elephant Party Rules
When your guests start arriving, you should have them place their gifts on one table or under the Christmas tree. Have them draw a number from a hat or bowl before taking a seat. The numbers will determine the order in which your guests open gifts, so make sure the count is correct when creating the numbers.
Arrange the seating so that everyone can see the gift pile. When it’s time to play, follow these basic rules of game-play:
- The person who drew number one goes to the gift pile and selects one at random. They open their white elephant gift, allowing everyone to see what it is. Their turn is over.
- The person who drew number two has the option of stealing the first player’s gift or selecting a new one to open from the gift pile. If they steal, they take their seat with the gift while the first player returns to the gift pile and unwraps a new gift.
- The person who drew number three has the option of stealing a gift from one of the first two participants or selecting a new gift from the pile to unwrap. If they take from another player, that player will return to the gift pile and pick a new gift to unwrap.
- Continue this pattern until all participants have had their turn and there are no unwrapped gifts left in the pile.
White elephant games can go on for hours if you don’t enforce the following standard rules:
- No gift can be stolen more than three times. Once a gift is taken the final time, it is out of the game along with its new owner. You can set a different limit to make the game shorter or longer.
- When a participant steals a gift, it cannot be stolen back immediately. For instance, if Jane steals a teapot from Doug, Doug cannot immediately steal it back from Jane. Doug is required to select a new gift from the pile or to steal from a different person. This system stops two players from endlessly going back and forth with a gift.
There are also some white elephant rules that dictate how the game ends:
- Once the last gift from the pile is opened, the first player has the chance to switch their gift for one that’s still in play. That makes up for their lack of opportunity to steal at the beginning of the game.
- You may or may not allow the person taken from to make another steal of their own. If you’re short on time, just allow the final swap and end the game. If you have more time and want your guests to have more fun, you can let the swapping to continue until one person decides to keep their gift rather than swap it. The rule that no gift is stolen more than three times remains intact for this final swapping session.
Get Creative with White Elephant Party Rules
There are some variations on the standard white elephant rules listed above.
For instance, you may allow your guests to follow the standard rules but without opening the gifts along the way. Each person decides to steal a gift or select a new present from the pile based on the appearance of the unwrapped gifts alone. When all swapping is complete, everyone opens their package simultaneously to see what they get to take home.
You can also experiment with themes for your white elephant party.
If you’re planning a party for a professional group or a company, you may ask participants to bring white elephant gifts related to the profession. For instance, team members at a dental office may bring items related to teeth.
Many other theme options have nothing to do with professions, so think creatively to ensure that the rules fit your crowd or event.