Everything You Need To Know About White Elephant, The Best Holiday Gift Game Ever

March 21, 2018 by Lisa Fogarty
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The holidays are great because you get to spoil friends and family with amazing gifts (while getting spoiled in return, we hope), but you can’t possibly buy a thoughtful (read: pricey) gift for everyone. Some circles–like co-workers or extended family members–are better suited for group gift swapping, like a White Elephant exchange, rather than a one-on-one exchange.

What is White Elephant?

Also known as Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap, White Elephant is the gift exchange game in which everyone buys a generic, cheap-ish gift, brings it to a group event, draws a number, and then can choose to open a new gift or steal from a gift that someone has already opened. The best number to draw in White Elephant is a #1 or a high number so you can choose from all the gifts that have already been opened (see rules below). The trick is to pay super close attention to the gifts being handed out around you before deciding if you want to steal one and make it your own.

The White Elephant game has become a classic gift-giving game, and sometimes one where you learn which of your co-workers shows no mercy when it comes to scoring a favorite gift. Here are the exact rules:

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Here are 6 White Elephant rules to keep in mind.

1) Agree On An Appropriate Amount To Spend On Gifts

woman getting gift

If you’re having a get-together with a group of friends and plan on playing White Elephant, let everyone know to bring one gift (not a gift meant to be given to a specific person) and to only spend X amount of dollars. It wouldn’t be fair to have one guest’s $25 gift competing with an iPhone 10.

2) Throw Numbers In A Hat To Determine In What Order Guests Choose Gifts

woman opening gift

If you’ve got 10 guests, cut out 10 sheets of paper, label them 1-10, place them in a hat, and allows guests to take turns choosing their number. This number will determine in what order they get to choose a gift from the collective pile.

3) Start Choosing And Opening Gifts

woman opening gift

It makes it easier if guests sit in a circle in their number order. Starting with the first guest, choose a gift from the pile and open it, but make sure everyone can see the gift.

4) Time To Steal


When it gets to their turn, every other guest after the first gift opener can opt to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pile or steal a previously opened gift. If a guest has their gift stolen from them, they can choose a new gift or steal from another guest. A gift can only be stolen once per turn and after three stops, the turn usually comes to an end.

5) But What About The First Player?

It may seem like the player who chose a gift first is at a serious disadvantage. But this is the part where they get their revenge: after everyone has had a turn stealing or opening and keeping gifts, player number one decides whether to keep their gift or steal a different one. All of that patience finally pays off!


Lisa Fogarty is a lifestyle writer and reporter based in New York who covers health, wellness, relationships, sex, beauty, and parenting.

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