Legend has it that, when the King of Siam wanted to punish one of his courtiers, he did not kill the offender. All he had to do was gift him a white elephant.
These animals were beautiful. They were sacred. They were also nightmarishly costly to care for, and it was unlikely the new owner even had the proper space in which to house the large beast. Upon receiving such a pachyderm, The New York Times reported in 1873, “the luckless recipient knows at once his fate is sealed.” He had no choice — like so many of us during the holiday season — but to smile through gritted teeth and say that he loved the gift.
This story is almost certainly apocryphal. But White Elephant gift exchanges and the accompanying hideous holiday socks they have bestowed over the years are very real. Today, White Elephant parties — also known as Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap parties — are a staple of the holiday season.
The exact rules vary from party to party but, typically, people bring wrapped gifts that are placed under a tree. Attendees then draw numbers to determine the order in which they’ll select gifts. After the first player selects and opens a gift, the next can either steal the first player’s gift or choose to open a new one. This continues around the group until everyone has a gift — some of which, of course, are more desirable than others.
Holiday “swap parties” originated sometime in the 1890s. An 1896 edition of The Delphos Daily Herald of Ohio, declared: “Delphos is not keeping up with the times. It should have a ‘swap party.’” For those who, like the apparently trend-driven residents of Delphos, wanted to be on the cutting edge of fashion, many papers published detailed explanations of the rules for such a swap. An 1897 article in The Tribune in Marysville, Ohio, explained that at such parties each guests was supposed to trade “‘sight unseen’ with another, any old thing she might have brought for that purpose.” Pictures, china, ribbons and poorly fitting gloves or shoes were suggested as appropriate items in a 1900 article by another Ohio newspaper, The Zanesville Times Recorder. (There is no definitive evidence of where these parties were invented but, given the state’s overwhelming early enthusiasm for them, it seems more likely than not that they originated in Ohio.)
These items might still be suitable in a “Yankee swap,” a version of the party where the gifts are not intentionally bad. While the name is sometimes thought to have originated with prisoners of war being exchanged during the Civil War, it actually goes back a bit farther, referring to the bartering exchange of any two items deemed to be of roughly equal value. The term appears in newspapers as early as 1842, and in the preface to his 1855 poetry collection, “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman included it on a list of essential American things, right between factories and the New York City Fire Department.
Not all gifts are necessarily considered equal in an exchange. The Lancaster New Era noted in 1901 that friends would almost certainly take advantage of swap parties “to get rid of the most undesirable things in their possession.”
“No matter,” the reporter declared, “the more outlandish the article the more fun its owner will have in exchanging it for something else.”
Back in 1905, part of the fun also hinged on stories detailing the amazing value of the items being swapped: The Goodland Republic of Goodland, Kan., reported that people would promise unsuspecting fellow swappers that their packages contained “monkeys” or “Lilliputian animals.” The actual gifts, when opened, were more likely to be misfit mittens.
Those givers may have overestimated how much people wanted small animals. One 1910 police officer in Utah was given a raccoon as a “white elephant Christmas gift.” But by Dec. 29, The Ogden Standard reported, he was “trying to decide upon which particular friend to bestow the animal as a New Year’s gift.”
Other organisms may have been up for grabs, too. One Pennsylvania hostess told The Scranton Republican in 1908 that she was trying to cut down on women jokingly bringing their husbands to these parties and claiming that their spouse was “the biggest white elephant they had.”
By 1911, these gift exchanges, which The Fall River Daily Globe in Massachusetts assured readers were “great fun for either young or elderly people,” had become most commonly known as white elephant parties.
White elephants enjoyed a spike in popularity during the 1930s, when the Great Depression made any alternative to buying new gifts desirable. Newspaper mentions of the parties dipped in the ’40s — World War II may have contributed to a less frivolous, celebratory mood — but they experienced a resurgence in the ’50s, when the festive exchanges became a staple of auxiliary clubs.
By the 1980s, the tendency to re-gift at these parties led to them sometimes being called “Dirty Santa” gift exchanges: After all, a dirty Santa is one who has already been down a chimney or two. This label may have also been an indicator of the parties’ waning popularity. As one Christmas lover sniffed in 1983 to The Press and Sun Bulletin of Binghamton, N.Y., “No one likes a dirty Santa Claus.” Today, people may be more comfortable simply tossing, returning or donating gifts they know they won’t use rather than saving them for an exchange.
Accordingly, it’s hard to find people as excited about holiday gift exchanges as those residents of 19th-century Delphos. The Independent Record of Helena, Mont., remarked in 2006 that “the white elephant gift exchange has become a holiday tradition, if only in the sense that it’s one of the things you don’t necessarily like to do, but you keep on doing it anyway.” By 2009, the parties had, sadly, been dismissed in The Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon as “tacky and tasteless.”
But now? In 2022, we are perhaps aware that “tacky and tasteless” are often synonyms for “a really good time.” So keep those raccoons handy for the next swap party.
Jennifer Ashley Wright is the author of six history books, including “Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist,” out this February.