The Ultimate Guide To Winning Your White Elephant Gift Exchange
December 22, 2016 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Just in time for the holidays, FiveThirtyEight devises a simple method to "winning" a white elephant/Yankee swap gift exchange.
posted by reenum (50 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds like so much more fun that Secret Santa (still pissed about the fucking smurf I got in grade 8 about 37 years ago!)
posted by srboisvert at 3:29 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like the method from a process standpoint, but the only way to win a Yankee Swap is to:
  1. Discover this painting at a charity shop for £15 and wait at the work holiday party for someone to take it.
  2. Watch the unwitting recipient's face fall - as though he's just witnessed someone do unspeakable things to a puppy - as he takes in its sheer awesomeness after unwrapping the gift.
  3. Cackle with glee as he literally begs any and all comers to relieve him of the gift during the swap.
  4. When recipient relocates and leaves the painting on the office wall, remove the item and take it to a local frame shop to have it spruced up.
  5. Have everyone in the office sign their warmest wishes and send it to him.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:39 PM on December 22, 2016 [57 favorites]

In 2002 or so we had one of these and basically no one took it seriously. Lots of gag gifts from the weird stores downtown and that kind of thing. I remember it clearly because my contribution was a copy of a book called Dow 100,000 (and you think we have heady days today...) which I remember so distinctly because it turns out that one person actually did take it seriously and contributed a set of drill bits in a very well thought out plastic case. I still kind of feel bad for the person who ended up with that book whenever I use one of those drill bits, going on 15 years later. I think you won that one, Cathy.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:42 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

The best one I've attended had a theme, which was childhood musical interments. It was a blast (and loud!), and pretty much every gift could be enjoyed in a silly way.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:50 PM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:51 PM on December 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

One place I was at (and somehow got a great mini toolkit one year) had a can of pickled beats that seemed to turn up each year.
posted by sammyo at 3:51 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

We just did ours this morning, dangit! I first got a pair of holiday leggings and wine, which were then STOLEN so I picked again and got a snowman wax fragrance diffuser. Now my office smells like a cookie.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:04 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Last one I was at, there was somewhat of a disparity of expectations. So you had some people bring really nice alcohol, and others brought regifted terrible statuettes. I took a middle ground and brought a somewhat silly cat calendar. Fortunately, the person who ended up with it actually stole it from someone else because they liked it, so I did not feel so bad about going home with my very nice box of chocolates.
posted by tavella at 4:05 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I thought "winning" at this meant having the gift YOU brought be coveted and stolen.

Winning by picking what you think is the best gift is 1) subjective and 2) out of your control, because it may be stolen from you.
posted by mochapickle at 4:09 PM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

My team just did this and the best gift by all accounts was the block of Emergency Food Product (first ingredient was corn syrup I believe) that the donating coworker had found buried in her recently-bought house. I managed to get away with two bottles of Fireball, some Mad Libs, and a Catan card game.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:14 PM on December 22, 2016

The Yankee-swap version we do in our extended family doesn't allow you to unwrap the gift; everybody picks or steals a wrapped package. So there's an added layer of intrigue - and some people have raised the art of deceptive packaging to a fine degree.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 4:16 PM on December 22, 2016 [16 favorites]

I'm with mochapickle. My goal with these is to cause a fight. Ideally between friends or family members. If that means going over the spending limit? Then fine. If that means doing research and trying to bring something more than one person really wants or needs? So be it. Basically I accept that odds are I will come back with less than I put in. So I go for causing lingering hurt feelings. I win if my gift gets stolen and the steal gets brought up next year. I have seriously thought about bringing a golden apple with "For the fairest" written on it, but the symbolism would be slightly tangled.

Tongue is in cheek here. Really, I want to give something someone will use, because we all have too much junk as it is, and people being willing to fight over something is a sign it's actually needed.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:22 PM on December 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

One way to win is to be like Aunt Cheryl and bring all your kids and grandkids to the party and let them do the stealing for you so you win the prize. Bless Aunt Cheryl, she was a riot! No one was a finer player than she!
posted by Calzephyr at 4:22 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

My office does this every year. It's basically the one forced socialization event that people look forward to. I was, hands down, this year's winner.

More on that in a minute, but first a few factoids: 1) For the fifth year in a row, this guy got unwrapped and someone got stuck with it. I actually stole it one year thinking it was kind of cool. Then it sat in my office until the following December and I wrapped it up and white elephanted it. 2) The thing I got last year is also still in my office, although I didn't regift it this year because of my carefully planned winning strategy. 3) The thing I got this year is also still in my office and will likely be there next December. I've already given away the parts of it I could. (If anyone wants a DVD of the movie Invictus, MeMail me.) 4) The office white elephant party has taught me never to give people candles as gifts, because every year there are four or five wrapped up candles. Ergo, people don't like receiving them and they end up as white elephant presents. Now you know.

Okay, so anyway, how I won.

I sell stuff on eBay. I also had to move this year because of a divorce. I apparently live in an area with an impossible rental market and had a really hard time finding a place. It ended up taking a few months, and during that time I didn't know if I was going to end up in a house or a one-bedroom apartment or what. The fact that I was maybe going to end up in the latter meant I needed to downsize the contents of my garage. I'd been a garage-having person for over 15 years, so there was a lot of garage junk to sort through, and a lot of garage junk that was going to be useless and space-taking in a small place. So it turns out that people on eBay sell "junk drawer" lots -- a collection of a few dozen things that people actually buy because one random thing in the lot appeals to them. I was having a hard time, emotionally, getting rid of extraneous (but perfectly useful!) garage stuff, so I made a junk drawer lot out of it and listed it for $.99 plus flat rate shipping. In the end, no one bought it (boooo) and I ended up moving the box with me, into a house with a garage.

So at this year's white elephant party, there was one box on the table that was a heavy, jangly, sealed USPS flat rate box. Because I didn't have any wrapping paper, I decorated it with some marketing messages printed on red and green construction paper. ("Lots of neat stuff in here." "You really want this." "This present is *technically* wrapped, you know." Etc.)

It was, maybe not surprisingly, one of the last few things picked. But one of our newest employees went for it (and she had to borrow my Swiss Army knife to open it, because I'd packed it for shipping really, really well) pulled the top thing out of the box, paused, and said "Huh. It's a cord cleat for mini-blinds so your kids don't get strangled. That's.... useful, I guess. I don't have kids." And then she pulled out the next couple of things, which were a roll of kite string and two packets of weather stripping from Ace Hardware that I'd had so long, the colors on the packaging were faded. She didn't react to that one. My coworker who used to work in construction shouted out "Hey, that stuff comes in handy! I'll take it if you don't want it." She set it aside and pulled out the next thing -- a gallon ziploc bag full of an assortment of gas stove fittings that I bought when installing a new stove, a chore that ended up taking about 13 trips to the hardware store, 12 of them having purchased the incorrect connector. By this time, people were laughing pretty hard and wondering what was going to come out next. Spoiler: A variety of handlebar mounts for a bike light. And by this time, people were howling. Someone said "Okay, one of you took this WAY too literally." [I snickered and remained anonymous.] The next thing she pulled out she identified only as "rusty stuff." And she was right -- those six 6" lengths of rebar were rusty on white elephant day, although they weren't when I packed them. (Come on, if they were rusty then, I would have thrown them away.)

She finally just dumped the box out into a glorious, glorious pile of random nuts and bolts, bike reflectors, some unused fly traps, PVC elbows, a roll of red vinyl caution tape, and much, much more.

She's only worked there a few weeks, and she was completely bemused, and it will probably keep her from attending the party next year, but I tell you what, this year's white elephant party was full of WINNING for me, because I managed to get that damn box out of my garage.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:25 PM on December 22, 2016 [56 favorites]

I always get stuck with a crap gift because I always choose to open. Can't help it; that's what the holidays are for!
posted by likeatoaster at 4:28 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The best one I've attended had a theme, which was childhood musical interments.

I would like to visit your workplace and/or neck of the woods. I've never heard of this :-)

At our company 2016 swap, I won a 22-ounce Firestone Velvet Merkin, which I put in the fridge for a few hours and shared with co-workers on the balcony that afternoon. Good time and nothing to take into the house; that's a win in my book.
posted by kurumi at 4:29 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Isn't this pretty common around the country? Sounds like it's not..

My extended family play this every year at my dad's side Christmas partner; there's about 15-20 of us; and did the Yankee model this year for the first time. My partner and I just gave one joint gift (some ugly bracelet that she received several years ago); we ended with potholders.

My sister hosts a holiday party for her friends (and we're invited along, we have some mutual friends) with a white elephant. For several years, an ugly ceramic cat that resembled Snowball (one of her cats, slightly gaunt, extremely ornery to anyone but her owner, and aging) would be wrapped up. Whenever someone would open their gift and get snowball, we, often several drinks in, would jeer, holler, and joke that this would be the year that Snowball finally croaks and you'd get bad luck for it. The lucky recipient would either hold onto it until the next white elephant, or on several occasions, would stealthily return the cat during another function/party during the year and inconspicuously place it in a china cabinet or semi-obscure shelf back in my sister's house.

Earlier this year, snowball passed on, aged 21 years, but its ceramic incarnation returned as a gift in this year's exchange (which, instead of a present, we were instead directed to bring a wrapped bottle of liquor, wine, or a 6 pack of beer, for the yankee swap and turned out pretty well except for my brother-in-law who received the ceramic Snowball).
posted by fizzix at 4:29 PM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

and a Catan card game.

Are the cards square? If so then that's the original Catan card game, now renamed "Rivals For Catan," and it's pretty dang great! Only for two players though.
posted by JHarris at 4:32 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Alas this advice comes too late for my office! At least even without this guidance, I was savvy enough to do some reconnaissance and avoid the recycled-from-last-year bas relief of Princess Di, something I'm particularly proud of since I wasn't even at this office last year.
posted by solotoro at 4:46 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Winning a gift exchange is about bringing the most memorable gift. What that means depends on the sensibilities of the group dynamics. Sometimes it's the most coveted gift. Sometimes it's the gift that brings the most pleasure to the recipient. Sometimes it's the most hilarious or ridiculous gift. The master class in gift exchange is when you can do all of the above in one gift, and then everybody just assumes that you were the one who brought it, because of course it was you. That is how to win at gift exchange. And that's not game theory. That's game fact.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:17 PM on December 22, 2016 [16 favorites]

We do this at work every year. It's super fun. We play with the rule that something can only be stolen a few times before it gets locked, so the poor people with the lower numbers get the alcohol.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:13 PM on December 22, 2016

The most successful giftts, IMHO, are the ones that are viewed as utter crap by about 50 percent of the participants and completely cool by the rest. That dynamite leads to great commentary, poaching, etc. and lots of laughs.
posted by carmicha at 6:14 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Someone brought a 9 foot tall inflatable dinosaur in a Santa hat opening a box with a bone in it to our Yankee Swap. It retails for $90 but someone's roommate works at Walmart so they got it very affordably, apparently. Anyways, every single person stole that dinosaur because IT WAS SO AMAZING!

In the end, I got a bag of cat-shaped chewing gum and cat butt air fresheners to hang on the rear view mirror of my non-existent car.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:40 PM on December 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Fuck me but I hate Yankee Swaps.

Guaranteed dissatisfaction for more than half of the guests? Now that's a party!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:54 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

In the end, I got a bag of cat-shaped chewing gum and cat butt air fresheners to hang on the rear view mirror of my non-existent car.

Stealing that from you would have been a feliny.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:56 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

The way you win is to graciously take the crappiest gift, year after year, and concentrate all that goodwill down into a single request to borrow money - like when you come up a little short closing on a house, or when you have to pay for a life-saving operation.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:21 PM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

childhood musical interments

We really need to assign a patron saint for fortuitous autocorrect failures and related errors.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:36 PM on December 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

I feel pretty accomplished this year that my gift was mentioned in the recap email as the most confusing gift. The guy who got it was not quite as amused as I was by a adoption certificate for a live lobster with an amazingly company and lobster relevant name. (Stole that idea from someone on Ask Metafilter.)
posted by carolr at 7:50 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

The one and only white elephant party I've gone to was in the 90s and there were like 20-30 people there. One guy brought a large pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. Still in the box. He had eaten a few slices. Ever since then, that guy wins for gifts in my heart and mind forever.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:37 PM on December 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

"We really need to assign a patron saint for fortuitous autocorrect failures and related errors."

Patron Demon of Typos.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:09 PM on December 22, 2016 [17 favorites]

My favorite part of our annual White Elephant gift exchange at work is the annual reading of, followed by arguing over, the rules.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 9:22 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

"You cannot lose if you do not play." -- Marla Daniels
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:48 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows McGee: ""We really need to assign a patron saint for fortuitous autocorrect failures and related errors."

Patron Demon of Typos.

Thank you for this amazing Christmas gift. Seriously.
posted by Samizdata at 9:56 PM on December 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

I was just saying earlier that I have never been to a Yankee Swap that did not lead to palpable bad feeling, I think primarily because you usually get two people who bring something more appealing than they're supposed to, eight people who bring things that are just meh, and two who bring something unfunnily lame that nobody wants. The bad feeling runs both ways: having your gift rejected and getting saddled with something non-amusingly unappealing. Fun for everyone. Hooray.
posted by Smearcase at 10:13 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Smearcase: "I was just saying earlier that I have never been to a Yankee Swap that did not lead to palpable bad feeling, I think primarily because you usually get two people who bring something more appealing than they're supposed to, eight people who bring things that are just meh, and two who bring something unfunnily lame that nobody wants. The bad feeling runs both ways: having your gift rejected and getting saddled with something non-amusingly unappealing. Fun for everyone. Hooray."

Or the members of the family that are "doing well" and have to grind it in with their contributions.
posted by Samizdata at 10:39 PM on December 22, 2016

We do an awesome one every year at a friends party that is mostly adults. There is a no booze rule. It's supposed to be $25 and people do mostly stick to that. The most coveted/ best gifts (not the same!) I can think of off hand have been.
Shake weight
Red Ryder BB gun
Game of Twister
Variety pack from local sex shop
Garden gnome with speaker and bluetooth connection (I'm still mad about losing that one)
Neil Dimonds Greatest Hits on vinyl
Horsehead mask years ago before anyone had seen one. Terrifying.
Many incredible t-shirts over the years.
Inflatable beer pong head holder game thing.
Hand made art by a very talented artist- people will basically kill for these. I've seen the one that is going to be up for grabs this year and I'm considering just stealing it and running off.
posted by fshgrl at 11:33 PM on December 22, 2016

Winning at a white elephant is bringing the most bizarre or funniest gift - and not telling anyone it was you.

I won at work once by Photoshopping our youngest, most straight laced, male coworker's head onto Frank N Furter's body, printing it onto fabric, making a throw pillow out of it, and edging the pillow with long, silky, scarlet feathers and jewel toned rhinestones.

The next year, I brought a huge, horrific painting of a squatting, wide eyed, chubby cheeked, sexualized child-fairy, complete with gilt accents - and before the gift exchange actually started, I spread the rumor that it was actually the previous year's throw pillow photo, turned into a life-sized painting.

God, I hated that job, but the holiday parties were fun.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:16 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Red Ryder BB gun"

Better avoid that one, you'll shoot your eye out!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:25 AM on December 23, 2016

We've done this at my friends "fake Christmas" party (though this year we haven't had one because everyone who usually hosts has very small children, and we're spread all over the country, boo :( )

Last year's "Best" gift was a bumper pack of Nicholas Cage themed items, including a Nicholas cage coffee cup, but best of all a Nicholas Cage mask.
All the photos from that party are very strange because someone in every photo is wearing a Nicholas Cage face.

We did secret Santa before that, which was ok because we generally all know each other well, but this is better because it's a fun game! And we're all friends anyway so it doesn't really matter too much who gets the jelly beans and who gets Nicholas cage's face because we can all eat Jellybeans and we can all take turns being Nicholas Cage.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:01 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Secret Santa is the only holiday work game I'd participate in. It's hard enough to maintain good relationships with coworkers: I really don't need the instant resentment generator of having a nice gift plucked from me while others laugh.

bares teeth, growls
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:40 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

A former employer had a fun take on this. The company would buy nice gifts - enough that 1/2 the attendees would get something nice. (I'm talking Ruth Chris gift certificates, XBoxes, etc.) Then the employees each brought something for less than $20 - which ranged from gag gifts to whatever. The idea being that this way everybody (employees and plus ones) went home with something, and there were 20 odd nice gifts so it was never obvious what one gift was going to be the one most often stolen.
posted by COD at 6:50 AM on December 23, 2016

I think these only work if everyone knows each other well and/or there is a defined set of expectations (serious, goofy, whatever). Otherwise, as tavella mentioned, you get a really disparate set of gifts and half the people are just totally disappointed. At the one I begrudgingly participated in last weekend, one person brought a friend that nobody else knew... the friend brought a fairly nice bottle of liqour. She ended up with... a single light bulb. The lady who won the liquor (and didn't open it for the party) brought a three hole punch. I contributed a "glass" moose mug a la Christmas Vacation that was stolen twice, and ended up with a cat calendar, so I considered it a "win" either way... but I felt really bad for the friend's friend. Overall I'd rather pass on the whole thing.
posted by Roommate at 7:25 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

We did something similar, but with no swapping - you just had to choose your gift and open - at Mr. Freedom's co-worker's holiday party this year. I contributed two coffee mugs wearing sweaters, which became even more hilarious as the person who opened them discovered that the sweaters WILL NOT COME OFF due to how they are sewn onto the mug handle, and so they can never be put in the dishwasher. I got a above-the-door basketball hoop and ball, which is gracing my office right now.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:05 AM on December 23, 2016

This is interesting. But, the formula demands that we be able to assign a dollar value to every item in the exchange. That seems to completely neglect the subtlety of the white elephant concept. (As, to be fair, do most actual white elephant exchanges.)

There are gifts with well-defined positive value: drinks you will drink, kitchen appliances you need, theater tickets, etc. There are things with well-defined negative value: novelty animated USB drive toys, terrible paintings you have to lug to the garbage, anything colored both red and green, etc. It's easy to find objects that fall along this continuum, and to evaluate them.

But a true white elephant is a very different thing. It has to be something that you both don't want and also feel bad about throwing away. Or, in its less personal form, something you feel has intrinsic value but whose value to you is negligible or negative. Even talking about the idea is hard in a game-theory framework. You really need to consider something which adds negative value to the recipient but whose negative value when owned is less negative than the distress they'll feel at getting rid of it. That's a strange kind of transaction to model.

A giant bowling trophy from the thrift store isn't a white elephant; it's junk. A nice unscented candle isn't a white elephant; it's useful. A heavy, intricately cut, orange crystal ashtray, on the other hand, can be a white elephant. Someone spent real time and money making the thing, and there are certainly hundreds of collectors in the world who would be overjoyed to own it; and yet, it isn't worth the effort to find them, and there's absolutely no aesthetic or functional reason you'd want such a thing in your home.

I was lead to believe in my youth that the whole point of a white elephant exchange is an excuse to rid oneself of such objects by exchanging them for objects that have no personal, sentimental value to you. Perhaps this has been superseded by thrift stores, who we convince to throw out the things we can't bear to throw out ourselves. But, it's a very cool idea. And it makes gaming the system to win the most valuable object seem entirely beside the point; so long as you don't come home with your own object, you've won. In some sense, picking the item you're most comfortable throwing away seems like the real goal.

Calling the thing "white elephant," combined with the fact the term seems to be used exclusively by people with no connection to Thailand, raises my "is this culturally offensive" warning lights. But, I've yet to hear anyone say that it is offensive, and it's pretty removed from modern Thai life, and I can't think of a better word. So, I guess I'll keep using it for now.
posted by eotvos at 10:34 AM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Most of the names the internet suggested for the game of choosing to either open or steal a gift had fairly dubious names.
We saw Indian Santa, Black Santa, Chinese Gift Exchange, Yankee Swap, Scottish Gift Exchange, Eskimo bingo, redneck santa and White Elephant Gift Exchange.
All of which we decided were bad names.

So we just refer to is as "racist Santa" now.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 11:39 AM on December 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

They call a silent auction a "Chinese Auction" here in Ohio, which is a term I'd never heard before. I dunno what's so Chinese about it . . .
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:06 PM on December 23, 2016

Now I'm sure you people live on a different world. Or this is an elaborate prank.
posted by bongo_x at 9:32 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is why Yankee Swap is the name we should all use, as it's not problematic; it simply refers to Yankees being thrifty and annoying and a huge burden to have to deal with, which is NOT racist because it's just true
posted by Greg Nog at 5:49 AM on December 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

hmmm. I just assumed "Yankee Swap" was some sort of obnoxious reconstruction-era Southern bullshit, having never heard the phrase before this thread. (Which clearly says more about my unmotivated prejudices than actual US history.)

But, except for the very specific and tangentially related case of a gift exchange, it doesn't solve the problem of how to describe an object one doesn't want to own but hesitates to part with. A "yankee household decorative object" isn't a thing anyone on Earth would recognize. We need a reference in long dead white guy fiction to describe such objects. 'cause the concept is cromulent and useful.
posted by eotvos at 8:39 AM on December 24, 2016

My current company does this, first I've encountered it, and the rules are pretty clear: everyone is assigned a random number, gifts are picked in numbered order, any given gift can be stolen no more than 3 times, first person gets one final steal to keep it fair to him/her, you can't steal something that was in the current turn stolen from you. Seems to work fine, most people treat it seriously and actually get something worth stealing to the right person, so if you end up with something not suitable to you, odds are good you're going to get a chance to grab something else. The article is somewhat offensive as it seems to be based on the idea that the monetary value of the gift has some sort of bearing on what you should do -- a much more effective strategy, unless all you're thinking of is how much you can get on ebay, is to ask if there is something out already but not locked out that you would actually want, and steal that, or if not open a new one. Even if something you really really want shows up later, odds are good someone will steal your whatever and you'll get another chance to steal to replace it. Even cheap alcohol and chocolates are more popular stealing items than some quite expensive but useless objects in our exchanges.
posted by Blackanvil at 11:25 AM on December 29, 2016

« Older Buckwheat Groats fried in schmaltz FTW   |   Roko's Basilisk: Like Sithrak, but more dour Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments