A White Elephant is an item that is unwanted by it's owner, or whose maintenance exceeds it value. Traditionally a gift that you would give as a white elephant would be something that someone else may enjoy or could put to better use than you have. That being said, my experience is that gifts at a White Elephant gift exchange are usually a gag gift, or food item, such as candy. There are usually a few items in the mix that are so useless that the new owner is not pleased with the chore of having to get rid of it on their own. These sometimes make it back to the gift exchange held in a following year. Items that are of value (either by popularity or actual value) get the highest amount of "stealing".
If you are planning to hold an exchange, here are the basic "rules":
1. Decide if you will have a theme for the gifts. Gift should be used in good condition, or purchased for set amount.
2. Set a monetary value for items that are purchased (ie $5). White Elephant gifts should be inexpensive.
3. Gifts must be wrapped, but not labeled in any way, so as not to disclose whom they are from.
4. Gifts should be something that someone would actually use or want.
5. Designate an area that guest can put their gifts as they arrive, so those already present cannot see who them are from.
To play the game:
Each guest who wants to participate must contribute a gift. Everybody sits in a circle with the gifts in the center. Prepare pieces of paper with numbers clearly written on them, one number per paper. There should be the same amount of numbers as their are participants. Each guest should then draw a number (from a hat or bowl).
The game begins with number one. That guest picks a gift from the center. They must keep the first gift they touch. There is no shaking gifts, etc. They open the gift and show it to all in attendance. It is now number two's turn. Number two has the option of stealing the gift from number one, or picking a new gift from the center. If they steal from number one, number one must go back to the center for a new gift. A gift cannot be immediately stolen back from the guest who just stole it. Number three then begins, but either stealing from one or two, or going to the center for a new gift.
Continue playing following the rules outlined below:
1. In a single round, gifts can be stolen twice, and the third person must go back to the center for a new gift (ie. 5 steals from 3, 3 steals from 4, 4 goes to the center) A new round begins when a gift is opened from the center.
2. A single gift can only be stolen three times. The person who stole it for the third time (the fourth owner- because the person originally opening the gift is number 1) keeps the gift and it becomes "dead".
3. Any gift that is still "live" must be out where it can be seen, and there is no consuming of any edible gift until the game is over.
4. When the last number has had their turn and the gift stealing has ended, the guest holding slip number 1 may swap evenly across with any one guest of their choosing. Play ends. Guests are then welcome to swap amongst themselves if desired.