For eight years, I worked on a TV show with a group of very kind, non-confrontational cartoonists who would sooner draw fifty identical tabletops than start an argument. But every December, our artistic crew would throw a potluck brunch with a White Elephant gift exchange — and their normally dull graphite pencils got sharp as knives if you know what I’m sayin’!
The White Elephant gift exchange is like NASCAR. Sometimes it’s just a routine drive around the track. But other times it’s high-stakes and full of risk and drama and discord and loss. Of course, on the surface, White Elephant sounds like nothing but fun. You and your friends / co-workers / whomever each bring a gift at or under the amount listed (usually around $20-$25) and anonymously place the wrapped gifts in a pile. You then draw a number and take turns picking gifts from the pile. Sounds pretty chill so far, right?
But here’s where the controversy kicks in, pitting BFF against BFF, sister-in-law against uncle, receptionist against boss. Instead of picking a gift from the pile, you can instead opt to steal someone else’s gift right out of their hands. Most gifts have a “steal” limit, meaning they can only be stolen two or three times, after which time they’re “locked in.” The stealing usually causes some drama, and, in the case of some parties I’ve been to, some tears. From adults. Who are crying over a free present.
The White Elephant is more than just a game, it’s a reflection of who you are as a person. In fact, attending a White Elephant party should be a prerequisite for anyone in a serious relationship. If you want to see if there’s any evil lurking in the heart of your fiancé, simply bring him to one of these gift stealing events. You’ll either leave proud of your future life partner’s ability to graciously accept novelty socks decorated with tiny beer mugs, or you’ll find yourself tearfully explaining to your friends how you thought you wanted to marry Craig, but he just stole the 150 Atari Games in One from a recently divorced neighbor who was giving the gift to his son who he only sees on the weekends!!
Some of you reading this already have your White Elephant philosophy which is “I give zero f*&%s, I’m gonna get what I want.” But for those of you who aren’t monsters, here are some tips on how to navigate this emotional roller coaster AND still have good relationships with your friends and co-workers.
1) Purchase your gift carefully. The gift you buy speaks volumes about you so put some thought into it. The purchase will reveal for all the world to see whether you’re a “giver” or a “taker.” If you think it’s hilarious to take a coffee mug out of the office’s communal kitchen, wrap it up, and put it in the pile so you can snag a nice bottle of shiraz in return, then you are a taker. However, if you think long and hard about your contribution to the annual party and realize that hey, if Diane in Accounts Payable picks your gift, she might actually enjoy an AmEx gift card instead of your stolen communal mug, then you are a giver. WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE?
My general approach with WEG is to buy a gift that a person would actually want. Sometimes that gift is funny; other times it’s practical. But it should never suck. Funny gifts can be perfect, but, like funny people, they can also fail if they try too hard. Is it hilarious to open the Copper Chef Perfect Egg Maker? Sure. But will it make Diane in Accounts Payable happy for more than one minute? She can probably just make the perfect egg on her own. She works with numbers. Bottom line: always be thinking of Diane in Accounts Payable.
2) Wrap the gift incognito-style. Don’t just wrap up the Nicolas Cage throw pillow in a basic way or they’ll know by feel what it is! Throw people off the scent by wrapping it up like something totally insane. One year, we all gathered around the pile marveling at the six foot tall gift wrapped package in the shape of Optimus Prime. We don’t all have 48 hours to wrap a gift card, but just sayin’. Diane talked about it for weeks.
3) When it’s your turn to choose from the gift pile, don’t be an a*$hole. Look, this is actually pretty simple. If you have a low number and are therefore picking early, you’re gonna pick from the pile. However, if you come a little later in the lineup, you’re going to be inclined to steal. My suggestion: if someone is tearfully clutching a gift, don’t steal it. Granted, a 35-year-old co-worker tearing up over potentially losing an eyeglasses holder in the shape of an owl indicates some deeper problems, but just let them have the owl holder and move on.
4) Unless someone else is being an a*$hole. In the world of White Elephant, there’s no “when they go low, we go high.” For example, if Craig swoops in and steals a present from a divorced dude for his own personal gain, Craig is fair game and you can do what you want to Craig — a*$hole-y moves included. He could open an Apple Watch with “ONLY FOR CRAIG” in tiny diamonds on the back, and you’d be justified in Robin Hood-ing that thing.
5) Whatever gift you end up with, smile big and say thanks. You’d think that you wouldn’t have to remind adults this, but I’ve seen people open a motion-activated toilet light and openly berate the purchaser – WHO THEY WORK WITH ON A DAILY BASIS. Later on around the coffee machine, you can try to blame your outburst on the eggnog from the bruch, but we know that’s the real you, you free-gift-hating jerk.
In the past few years, I’ve received chamomile scented candles, a DVD of “Klute,” and a cookie jar in the shape of a beagle which I accidentally dropped and shattered right in front of a horrified assistant executive in my office who has an Instagram account of cute dogs. However, my gift contributions have always been high quality things: gift cards, wine, things that a person would want.
So even though all that remains of the gifts that I’ve received is a picture of the shards of the beagle, I like knowing that somewhere Diane is enjoying that ceramic self-draining soap dish that I anonymously gave her. So just appreciate that no matter what happened with your White Elephant gift exchange, you stayed above the fray. You are not the mug- stealer or that a*$hole Craig. You are the spirit of the holidays. Light that scented candle with pride. Or throw it away after hours so your co-workers don’t see. Just don’t be an a*$hole.