The White Elephant Year

Caroline Brumfield, Graphic Design and Communications Specialist
Dec 15, 2020


Chances are you’ve participated in or at least heard of a white elephant gift exchange. If not, here’s a quick description:

Each person brings a wrapped gift to the exchange and puts it in a centralized location. Guests number off, and Person 1 chooses a gift from the pile to unwrap. Person 2 can either choose a gift from the pile, or steal from Person 1. Person 1 is not allowed to steal the gift back, and must choose a new gift from the pile. Person 3 can choose a gift from the pile, or steal from person 1 or 2. Play continues so forth until all gifts are unwrapped. There are usually pre-agreed upon rules about how many times a gift can be stolen before it is “locked in.” Strategies are developed, alliances are formed, and most of the time everyone leaves the party still friends with each other.

Why is it called a “white elephant” exchange? According to my highly-reliable Google research, the phrase is thought to have originated with the King of Siam, who would give rare albino elephants as “gifts” to people he didn’t like. The white elephants were beautiful, but they were considered sacred and therefore weren’t allowed to work. They had costly upkeep with little return on investment. 

Each year before we close the office for the holidays, our staff holds a white elephant gift exchange, typically at our office or a restaurant. We gather around a table and one by one, choose, open, and steal gifts. We’ve had people bring old mix tapes, creepy bird paintings, and even a full-size family wall portrait. Many people leave the exchange with something cute or fun – silly socks, tasty treats, or new bowls for their kitchen. But undoubtedly someone leaves with something they never expected, never wanted, and aren’t sure what to do with now. They take the gift home awkwardly, vowing to save it and pawn it off on someone at next year’s exchange. 

When you think about it, 2020 has been a white elephant year of sorts. We certainly weren’t expecting it, most of us had no idea what to do with it, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all thought more than once that we wish we could send it back. (Sorry! Leaving unwanted gifts behind at the restaurant is not allowed.) 

Being stuck with it, we’ve had to learn to make the most of it. Over and over again, we’ve overcome hurdles we never imagined having to take on. We’ve pushed forward in supporting each other through the separation, the changes, the loneliness, and the fear of a year full of unknowns. We've worked tirelessly to make this year as "normal" as possible for the people in our lives, quickly adapting as we go. 

Case in point – this year’s AWSP white elephant gift exchange. It won’t be at a restaurant or the office, but we’re holding it over Zoom. It won't be exactly the same, but this is one tradition 2020 isn’t going to take away from us. 

As the pandemic began, 2020’s return on investment seemed quite low. The year brought difficult decisions, financial hardship, anxiety, and sadness to many. But around every turn there have been silver linings to our struggles: Close conversations with our families at home. Intentional video chats with faraway friends. Encouraging cards and messages from coworkers. The opportunity for many of us to be more involved with our kids’ schooling. It is by focusing on these silver linings that we are making the most of 2020 instead of letting 2020 get the best of us.

For what we were gifted unexpectedly, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of finding its hidden value. 

And hey, maybe that creepy bird painting will look okay in the guest room?

  • holidays
  • COVID-19
  • traditions
  • Creating a Culture
  • covid-19
  • Hopeful and Inspiring

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