A white elephant gift exchange, Yankee swap or Dirty Santa is a party game where amusing and impractical gifts are exchanged during festivities. The goal of a white elephant gift exchange is to entertain party-goers rather than to gain a genuinely valuable or highly sought-after item.
The term white elephant refers to an extravagant, impractical gift that cannot be easily disposed of. The phrase is said to come from the historic practice of the King of Siam (now Thailand) giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.
Each participant supplies one wrapped gift, usually of similar value. The gifts are placed in a central location, and participants determine in which order they will take turns selecting them. The first person opens a wrapped gift, and the turn ends. 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 can steal from another player. To avoid never-ending circles, each gift can only be stolen twice per game. The game is over when everyone has a present. First player also can steal at the end if desired.