The History of White Elephant

Did you ever get that gift from an aunt or grandparent that was supposed to mean something but was ultimately either a pain to keep around or something you had to take care of but it really just moved from house to house with you?

Maggie Smith is our spirit animal.

People have been using the term “white elephant” to mean this kind of burdensome and useless object for 200 years! But the origins actually go back further to Southeast Asia.

Signs of peace…and uselessness

Kings and rulers in the area loved white elephants because it showed off just how rich they were. See, a white elephant was the ultimate sign of excess. White elephants were revered as sacred signs of peace and prosperity, which means they couldn’t be put to work. It was a responsibility to care for and feed the animal while getting nothing in return.

So when a person was gifted a white elephant, it was both a blessing and a curse (my guess is more curse than blessing though). The person now had to feed and care for this large beast while laws protected it from being put to work. And forget about giving it away. I mean, do you want to be the person who re-gifts an actual white elephant?!

A splash of disappointment

Legend has it that the famous PT Barnum spent an extraordinary amount of time and money to acquire a white elephant. And upon receiving it, he found out that it was actually gray with a few pink spots. Of course Barnum was disappointed. He was marketing “The Sacred White Elephant of Burma” and what he got was a dirty spotted elephant. So, now it meant something that was expensive or burdensome and failed to meet expectations.

[sad trombone]

Over the next century or so “white elephant sales” or “white elephant swaps” allowed people to get rid of clutter around their own houses by selling to or swapping with others trying to do the same. Rooted in the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” these bazaars ended with people leaving just as loaded down with crap as when they had come, but now it was new, shiny crap that they hadn’t been looking at for the past 20 years.

Making crap fun

Today, while we have 3 versions of gift exchanges, White Elephant gifts tend to be the ones that are either burdensome to keep around and get rid of or just sad and disappointing.

But let’s be honest, the real fun isn’t in the white elephant itself; it’s in the process of getting the white elephant. Or better yet, unloading your own white elephant. While you might not be the King of Thailand, you can still give white elephants away with the White Elephant Party Kit.

White Elephant gift exchange party kit


$19.99Add to cart


What better time to get rid of your unwanted crap than Christmas? Especially when you’re about to receive more shiny crap. The White Elephant Party Kit is everything you need to organize your holiday gift exchange with family and friends. 35 ornaments allow you to keep track of who’s turn it is. Stolen stickers are an easy way to know how many times a gift has been stolen and when it’s frozen. That way Uncle Patrick can’t try to keep those lotto tickets. And our Game Changer cards add more twists by allowing players to instantly freeze or unfreeze gifts, to swap numbers, and more. Plus, the official rules will hopefully help keep calls to the cops at a minimum. (Tell Rico we said “hi” when he does have to come over though. Rico’s always been good to us)

Source: Yeah, most of this came from Wikipedia. What? I’m not in college anymore. Featured Image by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash.

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