White Elephant Gift Exchange
There is a North American version of the Secret Santa custom that is known as a white elephant gift exchange. Although the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, it refers to a slight evolution of the well-known Secret Santa format. A white elephant gift exchange differs only slightly from regular Secret Santa or Trashy Secret Santa. In North America, no particular recipient for a gift is chosen before it is exchanged. This is to ensure that no one feels insulted or left out as a result of receiving a lower-value gift than the other guests.
The name of this custom has its origins in India and South-East Asia. Rulers there would take pleasure in giving a gift of a rare white elephant to wealthy families in order to ruin their fortunes. Anyone who received a white elephant would naturally need to take care of the elephant. Even that far back in history, it was extremely expensive to care for and maintain an animal of that size. Accordingly, the families were obliged to watch their fortunes waste away in order to pay for the costs of the white elephant. Of course, it would have been even worse to refuse such an apparently generous gift: rejection would have been seen as a great insult that could bring dreadful consequences.
With this basic thought in mind, white elephant gift exchanges often feature gifts that are given by someone who has already received them once but who now wishes to get rid of them. This is comparable to Trashy Secret Santa, which doesn’t involve giving actual ‘trash’ but rather ‘unloved gifts’ – but white elephant gift exchange can also involve giving items that the giver has bought for him or herself but which they have never used. Other variations involve amusing, small gifts. Often this custom is practiced around a particular theme that is established in advance of the event. This greatly simplifies the process of choosing a gift in advance.
This variation on Secret Santa is often known as a “Yankee Swap” in North America, where white elephant parties aren’t just held during the Christmas period: instead they frequently provide an evening’s entertainment at any time of the year.