A Quirky Christmas Tradition: A History of White Elephant


By: Gavin Kelleher | Writer

December 16, 2016

Every year on November 25th, after Thanksgiving festivities have subsided and the chaos of family gatherings have fizzled out, Christmas spirit springs into action. Christmas decorations are stocked on every shelf, Mariah Carey streams from every radio and Santa comes out of his wintery home into the malls of America. Hysteria of Christmas cheer overwhelm every block with twinkling lights and the Christmas season has begun. Christmas being one of the most renowned holidays is widely loved and celebrated in almost every way possible! Although Santa sitting in shopping malls may seem to be an odd tradition of this season, an even more peculiar practice has made its way into the beloved American Christmas– White Elephant parties! With a name such as white elephant, this tradition presents an array of bizarre and mysterious features.

An introduction to the White Elephant is not complete without an introduction to Buddhist mythology. It is said that the night Buddha was born, his mother was given a white lotus by a white elephant. This story carried a great significance in southeast Asian culture where the white elephant transcended into a representation of holy being. Eventually, white elephants were given as gifts to people of significance. They were expensive, rare and extravagant. However, this is not where the quirky tradition of exchanging odd gifts got its name.

As time progressed and Europeans began to inhabit Asia, the white elephant transformed into an aesthetic, with Europeans not understanding their value in Buddhist culture. This makes more sense as to where the term was derived from. White elephant gift exchanges are usually simply for a good laugh, as the gifts rarely have a real function, just like the white elephant: enjoyable but useless (to Europeans, at least).

In the early 1900s, shop owners began having “White Elephant sales” and market places had White Elephant exchanges. This all eventually manifested into the tradition of White Elephant gift exchanges as adored as they are today. In the words of Shane Hardy, a Junior, “My first experience with these kinds of parties was great! I was really young about 5 years old when I had one with my family. I got a mini fake tattoo kit that time, I was so stoked. I went to one this year, it was really fun too. It’s a pretty cool tradition.”

Now that we’ve covered the significance of the term “White Elephant,” it is essential to get into the exciting part of White Elephant parties!

In order to get a real personal experience we got to talk to some great people in our San Clemente family and get the inside scoop on how they get quirky for Christmas!

First, I had a chat with the beloved SC teacher Ms. Schmidt, an avid white elephant celebrator.

I began by asking first and foremost how she prepared for white elephant parties and how she strategized her gift giving.

Well, usually when I buy a gift, I like to get things that will be useful, and useful for anyone. It’s usually not something funny.

What is your ideal white elephant party?

I love it when it’s all girls. It’s a lot of fun when it’s just ladies because then we can get super cute things for each other.

Where are the best places to get white elephant gifts?

Cost Plus.

Any other places?

No, that’s it!

What is the funniest gift you’ve ever received or seen someone pick?

I can’t tell you! Well, one time, someone got really cute pajamas. Snuggly ones.

What’s your favorite part about White Elephant parties?

They are funny. It’s fun to see people get competitive and show Christmas greed, but it’s all light hearted!

Attending a White Elephant party with a gift as brilliant as your new found expertise on the background of the tradition will enhance your entire experience. Going into a party you will now be able to wholeheartedly embody the spirit of the White Elephant party. Happy gifting!

About Gavin Kelleher 24 Articles
Hello, my name is Gavin Kelleher-Marciello. I am a senior at SCHS, I moved to SC my junior year from Ocean Beach, San Diego. Having the opportunity to be a part of Triton Times has been an incredible experience. From the influence of other skilled young writers, to seeing this newspaper really flourish, Triton Times is a community I am more than proud to be a part of. As my last year writing for this paper I can't wait to witness the growth, awareness and connection that will develop between Triton Times and SC students. I hope to pursue a career in journalism, this is only the beginning.

5 Comments on A Quirky Christmas Tradition: A History of White Elephant

  1. This article was super cute and informative about a tradition I have always wondered about! It was a great “how-to” kind of article that I found really helpful.

  2. I play White Elephant at my grandma’s house every Christmas Eve, but only now, after reading your article, do I know the origin of our family tradition.

  3. I really liked this article especially around the holiday season it’s very cute and light hearted! My family every year does a white elephant party, including my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. I love how they give a background about the occasion, and where it comes from.
    Solana Loust

  4. I never knew White Elephant had such a history about it! Informative article on a super cute tradition. Loved the interview with Ms. Schmidt– it added a bit more to the article.

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