Reindeer Games: Addressing the White Elephant in the Room

This year, the holidays are going to look a little different, but many people are still finding ways to incorporate their favorite holiday gift-exchange games. I love holiday gift exchanges, but I’ve also been known to leave an exchange feeling frustrated by the experience or the outcome, especially when it comes to one particular game, which everyone seems to know how to play, but for which everyone appears to have different rules and expectations.

So, what do you call it?

Do you call it Dirty Santa? Do you call it White Elephant? Or are you a Yankee transplant who plays Yankee Swap?

According to several online sources, these are three different names for basically the same gift-stealing game, but there are some differences, and these differences can definitely lead to unhappy participants (I’m not bitter- really).

Most of the differences center around who goes first, how often a gift can be stolen, and whether or not the first person gets a chance to steal at the end, etc. Certainly, these issues can cause some bickering, but that’s part of the fun of the game. Doesn’t everyone want the gift they brought to be the gift everyone is fighting for? Isn’t part of the fun of the game strategizing how to get the best gift for yourself?

That’s all well and good, but what happens when participants have different expectations for the types of gifts that are supposed to be brought for the game?

I’ll tell you what happens: you spend time and energy putting together an at-home date night gift basket and end up going home with an ice-scraper for the car or a recycled collectible bird figurine from a decade before you were born. (No, really. I promise I’m not bitter).

It has always been my understanding that the terms “Dirty Santa” and “Yankee Swap” refer specifically to the game in which gifts are stolen, while the term “White Elephant” was used to refer to a gag gift. But when I’ve mentioned this difference to others I’ve been met with confusion, shock, or disbelief. It seems that every time I joined in on a game of Dirty Santa, I was playing with others who thought we were playing White Elephant. And the reverse has happened too. I’ve been invited to participate in a game of White Elephant only to discover at the party that gag gifts were not the expectation.

It seems I am not alone in this understanding of the differences.  A quick Google search of “Dirty Santa” or “Yankee Swap” will bring up variations of gift stealing games, but a search of the term “White Elephant” usually brings up rules that emphasize the need for the gift to be funny or impractical.

Turns out, people have been confusing a game with just one version of that game. You can certainly have a White Elephant version of Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap, but those two games do not necessarily require gag gifts. And White Elephant games don’t necessarily require stealing. You could also have a White Elephant version of Secret Santa.

In the end, it’s not really about what you call the game; it’s about whether or not all guests are on the same page about what the game entails. If you plan to host a holiday game, do your guests a favor and make sure the rules and expectations are clear early on. At the very least, make sure your guests know the recommended prices range for the gifts (usually $20-25), what type of gifts should be brought (nice, funny, themed, impractical, etc.), and the basics of how gifts will be exchanged (drawing numbers, stealing, passed until the music stops, etc.).

Holiday gift exchange games are meant to be fun. There is nothing wrong with a little friendly competition, and not everyone is going to love the gift they end up with, that’s just the luck of the draw. But when guests no longer want to play the game because they feel they’ve been cheated or leave feeling they did not walk away with a gift equal to the value of the one they brought, it steals the joy in a season that should be filled with it.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here