One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure

One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure

By Mike Vinopal

Do you know the history of the White Elephant?

Oh, the storied tales of White Elephant Christmases gone by! The triumph and defeat! The never-ending variations on the tradition from family to family, office to office! I am giddy just thinking about it. But first, let me back up for those who know not of the White Elephant.

A white elephant is at its core, a gift exchange. It is also a party game to be played in a setting of your choosing. Ideal for holiday social gatherings of all sorts, it facilitates interaction while also providing entertainment for those attending. The goal of a white elephant gift exchange is "usually to entertain rather than to gain,” so aptly put by the writers at that other blog, Wikipedia. Before I get into that too much, let me back up even further.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but burdensome gift. One that is hard to get rid of. It’s based on the legend of the King of Siam (present day Thailand to give geographical context) giving rare albino elephants to people he was unhappy with, that they might be ruined by the cost of caring for such an animals. Southeast Asian monarchs possessed the opulence to maintain a sacred white elephant. So how did it get to be used in our modern common vernacular for a parlor game? One theory suggests that Ezra Cornell (he’s the dude that founded Western Union and co-founded Cornell University, I know weird, right?) made the term popular through his social gatherings in the early 1800s. 

So with that bit of history, perhaps you can now more easily conceptualize the range of gifts that could be unwrapped in during a white elephant. Traditionally, something that’s extravagance is out of proportion to its usefulness. Like last year when my sister’s contribution to the annual white elephant was a lovely squatty potty. If you’re not familiar with that reference, it’s a plastic step for your feet (squatty) that fits around the bottom of your toilet (potty) to aid in more effective poops. Or grown-up sized footie-pajamas. Or a vintage Suzanne Somers Thigh-Master. Or a regular old Shake-Weight. Those were probably huge white elephant items in 2010. But I digress. 

 Double Shake-Weight

Double Shake-Weight

The point I want to make is that you can make your own rules. Because after that first gift is chosen, there are no guarantees until you've gone all the way through. 

Some variations do it where you open the gift when you choose it so everyone knows what it is. That’s what my family does and it makes the stealing all the more hilarious and brutal. Like the Christmas Eve when I was turning 21 and my cousin (who had turned 21 just a month before) stole a craft beer sampler, with nice beer glasses from me. I had held onto that gift nearly until the end. It was terrible and perfect all at once and everyone was rolling!

I’ve also seen it done where all the presents stay wrapped until the swapping is through too. Stealing in this version is more of a crap shoot, obviously, but this can add to the hilarity of it all in a different manner. Say you were eyeing a big box and a small box. You swapped someone for the big box, thinking that’s the one. The big box ends up being a grow-your-own-mushroom kit. The small box ended up being wads of cash. Ah well. When you’ve gone all the way through and everyone opens these wrapped mysteries, you can look around and laugh about how it all shook out, whether you got the cash or the mushroom kit. At least you got something.

And you don’t have to get extravagant yet worthless items if that’s not your jam. In my family, it’s kind of a mixed bag and that’s fun too. You can choose a small group to try it with and decide that everyone gets decent $25 gifts and do it that way. Or if you have like 30 colleagues that you want to do it with... it might take forever, but I bet you’ll laugh your asses off the whole way through. The white elephant can be whatever you want it to be. If you’ve done it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, give it a try this holiday season. The gift giving is nice and sometimes you even walk away with a bonus, like a craft beer sampler. But all that pales in comparison to the laughter and shenanigans that have ensued in my experiences. I hardly can remember what gifts I’ve won.

Besides, as the old adage goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure."

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