What it is: A gift exchange party activity, usually played at Christmas parties, where guests bring gifts and, through a series of complex rules, exchange them. Lots of laughs are usually involved. Be advised, it’s also a better game for teens or adults than kids, because, yes, some people are bound to end up with better gifts than others, and adults are less likely to cry and throw fits when that happens. 😉

Best for: About 15 to 20 people.

What you need: First, you’ll need little slips of paper with numbers written on them, one number for each guest. Start at 1 and work up from there. Put the slips of paper in a bowl or hat for guests to draw from.

Next, instruct each guest who wants to play to bring a wrapped gift to the party. It is important that the gift is wrapped. It’s also often a good idea to set boundaries ahead of time for what the gift might be. In lots of white elephant exchanges I’ve been in, used gifts are fine (and even encouraged), but you could rule out used gifts if you wanted to. You can also set a monetary limit (like no more than five dollars).

If you’ve never done a white elephant gift exchange before, there seems to be a general perception of what makes a good white elephant gift. It’s often something quirky, random, regifted, and/or funny. That ugly fur hat you’ve had in the back of your closet but never worn, for instance, is sure to get a few laughs. Or a pair of ridiculous fuzzy slippers. Maybe a backscratcher shaped like a claw. Once I saw someone bring a live hermit crab (that was a surprise when it was opened). The point is, it doesn’t have to be expected or normal; the quirky stuff is often the most fun. There always seems to be a selection of more normal gifts, too (candles, bath salts, chocolate and candy…) and that’s fine and great. Personally, the only type of white elephant gifts I don’t like are obvious junk or trash (like dirty socks). To me, that’s just plain mean and you feel sorry for the person who ends up with it.

How to play: To start the game, have everyone put their wrapped gifts in a pile in the center of the room. Then have everyone else sit in a circle around the gifts.

Go around the circle and have each guest draw a number. Have them hold onto their slips of paper because it will be important to remember which number everyone has. The person who drew number 1 (we’ll call her Julie) goes first.

Julie starts by picking a gift, any gift she wants, from the pile in the center and opening it in front of everyone. As Julie is picking, no one else is allowed to say which gift they brought (but they can say after she’s chosen and started opening the gift). After she opens the gift, she holds it up for everyone to see and either admire (woah, awesome vintage Star Wars poster!), covet (I must have that five-pound bag of gummy bears!) or laugh at (haha, a Superman snuggie!).

Then whoever has number 2 (we’ll call him Jack) gets to go next. Now Jack has two options. He can either “steal” Julie’s gift, if he really wants that snuggie, or he can choose a new unopened gift from the pile, open it, and let everyone see. Let’s say he opts to open a new gift and gets a board game.

Now it’s number 3’s turn (let’s say her name is Katelyn). Katelyn gets the option of stealing Julie’s snuggie or Jack’s board game, or choosing a completely new gift. Say she wants Julie’s snuggie. All she has to do is walk over and take it (Julie has to let it go). But then Julie gets the option of stealing a different gift or opening a new gift from the pile. If she chooses Jack’s board game, then Jack gets the option to steal a gift or open a new one…and the round ends when someone finally opens a new gift from the pile.

That’s the basic game play, and you continue until the last gift from the pile is opened. Then everyone gets to take home the gift they’re holding, either excited (yes, I always wanted a snuggie!) or maybe a little bummed (man, I think I’ll just save this fake potted plant until next year’s white elephant and give it away then) or possibly full of regret (why didn’t I steal that bag of gummy bears when I had the chance?), but such is the nature of a white elephant gift exchange, and hopefully everyone still had fun. Now, to make the game possibly a little more fair and less likely to result in disappointment, read on to some of the rules and variations below.

Rules and variations: I think one universal rule is that there are no immediate steal-backs. So, for example, if Katelyn stole the snuggie from Julie, Julie couldn’t steal it back right away. If you wanted, however, you could allow Julie to steal it back during the same round, just not right away. (So say if Katelyn stole Julie’s snuggie, then Julie stole Brian’s Disney princess lunchbox, then Brian stole Ashley’s chocolate truffles, then Ashley stole the Disney princess lunchbox, then Julie would have the option of fairly stealing the snuggie back if she wanted.) That rule could be debatable, though…

Another pretty universal rule is that there’s no hiding of a gift after you’ve opened it. All gifts must be kept out and in plain sight of everyone. (This keeps that sneaky guy who opened the $10 gift certificate to Coldstone from hiding it under his chair undetected the whole game long just so no one will steal it.)

Another very common rule I’ve played with is to “freeze” a gift after it has been stolen a certain number of times, usually 2 or 3. So let’s say in your circle you have a super desirable gift, like a five-pound bag of gummy bears, that everyone wants. If you have a rule that gifts can only be stolen 3 times, whoever is the third lucky person to steal the gummy bears gets them for keeps. It would work like this: if Julie opened the gummy bears, then Jack stole them a few rounds later (one steal), then Katelyn stole them the round after that (two steals), then Isaac finally stole them after that (three steals), Isaac would get to keep them for the rest of the game; no one would be allowed to steal them away. This rule kind of also adds an element of strategy to the game. If you really want something, try to be the third person to steal it and you’re set.

Another rule I’ve played with is to, at the very end of the game, let whoever drew number 1 choose to steal any un-frozen gift in the circle if they want, because this person is kind of at a disadvantage, especially if they just happen to pick a lame gift (a ball of yarn? really?) and no one ever picks it from them. So let’s say Julie was the first person to go and picked a ball of yarn. At the end of the game, she would get the option to steal any un-frozen gift: say the nice boxed set of dominoes from Jack. Then you have two options. You can either have Julie and Jack do a straight-up trade, so Jack is stuck with the ball of yarn (sorry, Jack), or Julie can put the ball of yarn back in the middle of the circle, steal the dominoes, and then another round of stealing starts, with Jack choosing whatever un-frozen gift in the circle he wanted, until someone in the circle ends up taking the ball of yarn again and the game officially ends. The first option ends the game quicker; the second option can drag out the game longer.

Additionally, because in every game there usually is at least one gift that’s just kind of sad, and some poor guest opens it and gets stuck with it for the rest of the game, my mom always played with a twist that I liked; it makes the “loser” feel less jipped. My mom always prepared ahead of time one or two wrapped consolation prizes, usually just simple, ordinary things like candy or maybe a small gift card. Then at the very end of the game, everyone votes on the one or two worst gifts to end up with, and those people get the consolation prizes and feel not so bad about life.

I’m sure there are other rules you could play with that I’m forgetting or not aware of. Anyone else have another rule or variation to share?

For another way to play the game, check out batteries included white elephant gift exchange, which talks about hosting the game yourself and providing all the gifts.

(Oh, and side note if you’re curious, none of the sample people mentioned in this post are real people I’ve played with, of course…but some of the gifts are ;))


  1. We are big fans of the white elephant gift exchange party game.. We have done so many variations through the years.

    This year we are doing the gift swap with the addition of Lefty the White Elephant. It is a Left-Right story that adds another dimension to the standard white elephant rules.

    If you are interested in the story, here is a link: http://albinophantblog.com/white-elephant-gift-exchange/lefty-the-white-elephant-a-gift-exchange-story/
    Happy Holidays

    1. Sarah, thanks for the variation! That definitely sounds like fun. I remember playing something like that when I was in elementary school. And thanks for the link to your site: it has more info on white elephant gift exchanges than I ever knew! I liked reading about white elephant facts and myths. 🙂 Thanks!

  2. In our variation of the White elephant we start out like yours by each picking a number 1- ??? ( however many people) then to throw a little twist in there we put another set of the numbers 1-??? in a bowl and have someone in charge of picking the numbers and that is the order we go in so for example Number 1 wont necessarily be first and number 2 wont be second and so on….Hope this puts a little laughter in the game.

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