Best of the worst white elephant gifts

Best of the worst white elephant gifts

by Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

Growing up, one of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions was a White Elephant gift exchange. Each participant was asked to bring a wrapped gift, my aunt would pile them up under the Christmas tree and after dinner – the games would begin. 

It quickly turned into a family tradition to see who could bring the “best” worst gift. At least one of us would come up with something so outlandish and hilarious, the entire family laughed until we cried upon seeing the gift opened, and even fought like banshees to “steal” it. Some of our best handiwork included: an adult-sized Cookie Monster onesie – complete with footie-pajamas, a container of Cheetos-puffs the size of a bongo drum (thank you Costco!) and a ceramic foot. Over the years, Chia pets, cat t-shirts, squirrel feeders, inflatable furniture, a snow cone machine, Yoda candles and a set of mustaches made their way into my gift-giving repertoire.

If you’ve never heard of this game, a White Elephant exchange is a gift swap where participants bring whimsical, nonsensical (or otherwise funny) gifts harkening back to the ancient legend of King Siam. It was said that King Siam would gift rare white elephants to those who displeased him. White elephants were considered sacred animals and thus restricted from any manual labor, meaning the recipient could neither dispose of, nor benefit from the animal – and no one else was certainly eager to take the blessed animal either, leaving the recipient stuck with a useless “gift.”

In modern times, there are actually quite a few benefits to hosting your own White Elephant party, either for friends and family, or even co-workers. First, you’re only responsible for bringing one gift per person, versus a mad rush to try and find the perfect gift for everyone – a huge timesaver and a breath of fresh air for your Christmas budget. Second, it’s just downright fun! The only limit is the dollar ceiling and your creativity. White Elephant exchanges are also wonderful ice-breakers, making them great candidates to replace the awkward “Secret Santa” office exchanges, which let’s face it – no one really enjoys.

The rules couldn’t be simpler:

1. Set a dollar amount.  

2. Bring an awesome wrapped gift. (It’s also fun to play with the senses. Wrap a small gift in a giant box, or add weight with a brick, or ream of printer paper. You get the idea.)

3. Draw numbers to determine the order of selecting gifts.

4. The first person opens a wrapped gift, then their turn ends.

5. On subsequent turns, each person has the choice to either unwrap a new present or to "steal" another's. When a person's gift is stolen, that person can either choose another wrapped gift to open, or steal from another player.

6. Steals are usually limited to two, i.e. a gift can only be “stolen” twice.

7. The game is over when everyone has a present – and gifts can no longer be “stolen.”

8. Bonus rule – Since the first player is the only one without the option of seeing any unwrapped gifts, they often get a final turn after all the gifts have been opened and can swap with any gift, that can still be stolen.

If a White Elephant exchange sounds like the game for you – here are 11 ideas to help you find the perfect gift!

The printed word

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You would be surprised at how creative publishers have gotten with calendars and coffee table books. Eighteen months of chickens? You bet. Crafting with Cat Hair? Oh, yeah. Chances are you’ll find something grin-inducing in your local bookstore, or stationery section (or online) that would be a perfect White Elephant gift. 

Small appliances

There must be a special White Elephant patent provision to fast-track manufacture of small appliances. Egg slicers, bacon racks, “As-seen-on-TV” onion choppers, S’mores makers, Hello Kitty waffle irons and penguin-shaped snow cone machines are all prime candidates for that perfect gift.

Hit up the garden section

There is always some classy White Elephant décor to be found here. Garden gnomes and flamingoes, classy printed rocks and Chia pets all can be found in the gardening section.   


There’s a reason cats win the internet; they’re hilarious. As such, felines have secured a broad market share across several industries. For example, a cat head juxtaposed against the Milky Way has found its way onto coffee mugs and t-shirts, bath slippers and robes, and of course – fanny packs. The sky’s the limit if it’s a cat-themed White Elephant gift you seek.

Themed towels, blankets and linens

I’ll be honest, if I opened a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) themed bath set, featuring all of the best wrestlers, I’d fight tooth and nail to keep it. Gone are the days of boring, monogrammed and color-coded towels, blankets and linens; you’d be surprised at just how funny the softlines section might be in your local department store.

Cologne specials

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Perfumers will do anything to stick out in a crowded market – and during Christmas, there is no shortage of boxed-sets on sale that make perfect White Elephant gifts. Expect creative (and laughter-inducing) branding that truly knows no limit. Crazy cologne names, celebrities far past their 15 minutes of fame, and even a Scarface Tony Montana starter pack are just the tip of the iceberg.  

Plush animals and pillows

Plush animals have always come in a fun variety of shapes and designs, but pillows have jumped into the market too. Unicorns, stuffed bananas and your favorite emojis should be easy to find in the toy section. But there are also some pretty sweet pug-inspired couch pillows out there.

Inflatable furniture

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I guarantee if this shows up as a gift, someone will have it inflated by the end of the evening. Because who wouldn’t want a glittered blow-up couch?

Ugly Christmas sweaters

An ugly Christmas sweater adds that little bit of panache to any festive get-together. Clothing stores have gotten wise to the game too and now seem to roll out gaudier versions each year. Tinsel, glitter, puff-balls and even lights are all within the realm of possibilities for these festive sweaters and vests. 

Alcohol and liquor accouterment

Like perfumers, brewers have taken to using extremely creative marketing to snag would-be buyers. It won’t take long to find a Christmas spirit that’s perfect for your party. Add a talking Yoda bottle opener that imparts sage advise to imbibers and you’ll have struck White Elephant gold. 

Jewelry and figurines

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If you can imagine it – you can probably find it as a piece of jewelry or as a figurine. The gaudier the better for a White Elephant gift that won’t soon be forgotten.

Whether you choose a White Elephant gift in one category or decide to make a themed gift and mix and match across several, these 11 ideas are guaranteed to get your creative juices flowing! 

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