White Elephants, Life, and Other Gifts

I went to a Christmas party last night, the first one in . . . well, to tell the truth, I can’t remember ever going to a Christmas party, though I must have sometime or other.

We were each supposed to bring a gift — a white elephant, they said.

ElephantThe term “white elephant” is derived from the supposed Thai tradition of a king bestowing such an elephant on a subordinate he wished to ruin. The elephants were costly to maintain, didn’t do any work, and needed to be available to anyone who wished to worship the holy creature. A white elephant, then, is something unnecessary that is more trouble than it’s worth.

How that definition of white elephant fits in with a white elephant gift exchange, I don’t know, since the way the term is used now, a white elephant is simply something you have but don’t want, something you make, or maybe even something you buy that isn’t expensive. Some people at the party brought wrapped up junk — a bag of old video tapes, a cracked mug, long-expired candy. Others gave an elaborate gift like an insulated backpack or something special like a handmade birdhouse.

We played a game with the gifting. We each got a number. The first person picked a gift, and opened it. The second person could “steal” that gift if they liked it or pick a new one. The last person, of course, could choose any of the opened gifts or take a chance on the final unopened one. (If someone “stole” the gift you had opened, you got to choose another one.)

It was an interesting psychological study. Some people very boldly went and snatched the opened gift they wanted. Others did it timidly or apologetically. The rest just took an unopened gift, choosing one carefully after examining all the offerings, or simply picking one at random.

Me? I acted true to form. When it came to my turn, I chose the nearest unopened gift. There was one opened one that I would have liked, but someone had already stolen the gift — an insulated back pack fitted out with accoutrements for a picnic — and I knew she wanted it. I could have stolen it from her, of course, but any pleasure I would have derived from the gift would have been dimmed by her disappointment. There were a few other gifts that might have been nice to have, but the truth is, when it comes to life and other gifts, I will always choose a mysterious unknown over a mediocre known, even though I know there is a good chance I will come out of it badly. (As I did — I got a bottle of men’s cologne, which I have absolutely no use for. I ended up giving it away.)

Even though I came away without a gift, I’m grateful I didn’t get stuck with a real white elephant. The zoning variances alone would have cost a fortune!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

7 Responses to “White Elephants, Life, and Other Gifts”

  1. Paula Kaye Says:

    We used to do this in my family among the adults. It was really fun but I usually got stuck with a dud gift. Thanks for making me smile today with your last comment….

    Smidgens, Snippets, & Bits

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    I’m doing a white elephant thing at work next week. I’ll probably buy a bag of candy though because I can’t afford anything more elaborate. Should be fun though.

  3. writemybrainsout Says:

    “I will always choose a mysterious unknown over a mediocre known.”
    LOVE this.

  4. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    On the other hand, a real white elephant could have been proudly featured in hundreds of Facebook and blog pictures.


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