Give friends and coworkers the gift of an (actually) fun white elephant party

Close up photograph of two friends wrapping presents on a table.
Paperless Post BlogHolidays > Give friends and coworkers the gift of an (actually) fun white elephant party

The air is chilly, the morning grass frosty, and the pumpkins are adding warmth and color to the front steps. This can only mean one thing: the season for scheming up holiday party ideas is upon us. 

Naturally, your friend group or coworkers have designated you to plan something spectacular. You want to provide them with energy, festive decor, and merriment for hours, so you turn to none other than the white elephant gift exchange. 

A white elephant gift exchange is a classic favorite with boundless potential for fun without being too stuffy or complicated. But when it comes to parties, we like to turn the classics up a notch. Without further ado, here’s how to host a white elephant gift exchange that has guests raving into the New Year.


Left: A white invitation with illustrations of differently shaped and colored packages; right: a woman wearing reindeer antlers holds a present up and smiles.Which One To Open First” by Mr. Boddington’s Studio for Paperless Post; Image via Crazy Adventure Called Life.


What is a white elephant gift exchange?

The idea of a white elephant party is fairly simple. Each person brings one wrapped gift without an intended recipient—and all other guests exchange these gifts at random (while following the rules of the game, of course—keep reading). 

You might be wondering how this gift-passing game came about—and where the term white elephant comes in. The white elephant gift exchange—also called the Yankee Swap or the Dirty Santa Swap—began in the early 1900s. Not so unlike today, party guests were instructed to wrap items from around their house that they could not find any use for but didn’t want to throw away. Though these days, if you bring an old ironing board, your fellow guests may never let you live it down. 


Overhead photograph of gifts on red background.Image via Pexels.


The rules of the white elephant gift exchange

There are dozens of versions and variations of the game out there, but here are the official rules according to the White Elephant Rulebook:

1. Each guest arrives with one wrapped gift to contribute to the gift pile. Hosting tip: Set a spending limit, such as $10 or $25, to make sure all of the gifts are around equal value.

2. Guests sit in a circle around the gift pile so that everyone can see each gift. Draw numbers from a hat or find another means of deciding who picks a gift first. 

3. The first guest chooses a gift and opens it so that everyone can see. 

4. The following guests may either steal another guest’s gift or choose a new wrapped one. Hosting tip: Decide a maximum number of times a gift can be stolen, e.g. a gift may be stolen up to three times, and it can never be returned to its original opener.

5. After everyone has a turn to choose a gift, the first player may swap if they’d like. The last round is the last chance for steals. The game ends when no further thievery is provoked. 


Left: A red invitation with a gold ribbon detail; right: A hand pouring champagne into two glasses sitting on a festive table.Proudly Present” by Paperless Post; image via Pexels.


Excite your partygoers with the perfect white elephant invitations 

With any party planning, setting expectations is the key to success. The vehicle for expectations? Invitations. 

Gift exchange invitations serve more purpose than simply letting guests know the date and time to arrive with their appetites and wrapped gifts. Think of invitations as your white elephant party helper elves, carefully building the foundational blocks of joyful tidings to come.

Use your white elephant gift exchange invitations to: 

— Set the theme of the party with a unique design and color scheme

— Give instructions on what to wear, if there’s a dress code 

— Encourage a deadline for buying gifts (especially if placing online orders)

— Offer a spending limit for gifts (or suggest using random household objects)

You won’t be able to jingle all the way through our holiday invitations without finding the perfect one, whether you want something simple and classic, with splashes of color, or one that makes your coworkers want to party their tails off. 


A collection of holiday gifts including a cracker, a felt dog ornament, a nutcracker ornament, and a bulb ornament, with greenery.


Prepare the space for a white elephant party

Whether your white elephant gift exchange is with friends or coworkers, you’ll want to spruce up the space to kick cheer into high gear. White elephant parties are meant to be kitschy, comedic, and a little bit chaotic, so this is no place for minimalism. 

Bust out the Charlie Brown Christmas platters, hang a colorful garland, and pop some thrifted winter trinkets on every shelf. If you’re at home, stand that evergreen tall and proud in the living room—the more ridiculous ornaments, the merrier. 

Revolve your space around the main event. Be prepared with a table and chairs. We recommend putting  the table in the middle of the room with poinsettias and cookies to draw plenty of attention to the fun that’s in store. 


Left: A white invitation with an illustration of a brown dog tangled in wrapping paper and ribbon; right: an overhead photograph of a festive round bread with dip in the middle.Wrap It Up with a Bow” by Paperless Post; image via The Candid Appetite.


Tips for hosting a white elephant exchange for friends

With friends, white elephant parties can be a touch more personal—or more wild, depending on your friend group. Customize it for your people. If your friends could use a break, soothe them with candles, fuzzy slippers, and a cozy cabin theme. If your friends’ voices grow louder as the hours tick by, prepare a themed cocktail and have a game like Merry Dissmas on hand for after the swap. 

Here are a few ideas to turn your white elephant gift exchange with friends up to the next level (volume or otherwise): 

Host a hand-crafted gift party: Are your friends an arts and crafts-loving group? Give them a project they’ll love by setting up a hand-crafted-only gift exchange. Specify in your invitation that all gifts should be handmade, and you’ll be amazed at the variety you end up with. Hand-crocheted sweaters, wood-whittled birdhouses, and Elmer’s glue disasters will make for a delightful affair. 

Make it an ugly Christmas sweater party: A cozy holiday gathering is not complete without ugly Christmas sweaters. Theming the attire sets the holly jolly mood as soon as your guests step through the wreath-adorned door, getting them ready to sip hot cider and feel the Christmas spirit that much sooner. Make it a contest for the ugliest sweater—the winner gets an extra gift at the end of the white elephant gift exchange. 

Serve up holiday splurges: Give your friends the holiday food they crave without the fuss of silverware or cloth napkins. (As a bonus, you’ll have an easier time with clean-up, too.) Set up an appetizer table with passable snacks like pigs in a blanket, stuffed mushrooms, spinach puffs, bacon-wrapped dates, and plenty of desserts. Don’t overthink it. As long as it’s delicious, you’re on the right track. 


Left: A close-up photograph of the hands of two people exchanging presents; right: a white and gold invitation with an illustration of an elephant with a festive bow around its middle.Image via Pexels; “Wrapped Elephant” by kate spade new york for Paperless Post.


Tips for hosting a white elephant exchange for coworkers 

White elephant parties for coworkers can be a bit trickier as you navigate the extra restrictions of fluorescent office lights, workday hours, and sometimes a more formal social etiquette. But when they’re done well, gift exchanges with colleagues can be super memorable. 

Here are some ways to make your work-centered gift exchange sing: 

Send reminders early and often: Share your business holiday invitations at least a month early and send reminders for buying gifts once a week until the party day. It might sound excessive, but trust us—it’ll avoid the inevitable coworker who forgets a gift and makes the whole thing awkward. Keep the budget per gift low, like $5–10, to remove any potential financial obstacles. 

Add a Christmas cookie swap: To avoid any of the conversation lulls that can happen with a coworker gathering, supply lots of activities. A Christmas cookie swap gets everyone involved. You never knew that your mysterious Director of Accounts is such a talented baker, and now you’re exchanging recipes with three developers you’ve never interacted with. 

Get cocktails approved: If your office allows it, some tasteful cocktails are a delicious way to liven things up (and shake off that still-at-work feeling). Winter cocktails can be an excellent conversation starter as the project management team discovers their common interests in whiskey tasting. If you can’t get the hard stuff approved, beer and wine are still North Pole favorites. 


Creative white elephant gift ideas and themes for friends and coworkers

Whether you’re meeting with friends or colleagues, you have two gift-organizing possibilities—go completely random, or choose a theme. If you’re opting to suggest guests bring gifts from home, these ordinary objects could inspire plenty of belly-laughing fun. But you can also inspire slightly more curated gift-giving with one of these themes:

— Local gifts only: Inspire guests to bring a gift they can only find around town, like handmade ceramics and farm-fresh cheeses. You can all support local makers and will probably discover some unique gifts, too.

— Self-care exchange: Make this a spa-inspired exchange and encourage invitees to bring gifts that encourage self-care. Of course, these can still be silly—a duck-shaped loofah, anyone?

— Gag gifts: This theme may go over better with friends than with coworkers, so know your audience and choose wisely. If you’re game for a little extra fun, these gifts can bring loads of laughs—think a bottle of Poo-pourri, or a frame with an embarrassing photo of one of your friends inside.

— Vintage gifts: Here, there’s only one rule—the gift has to come from another decade. Whether you source an old vinyl record or thrift a vintage Christmas cookbook with some wild Jell-O mold recipes, you’re sure to create new memories amid the nostalgia.

Movie-themed gifts: Do your friends and family all share a love for “Elf” or “A Christmas Story?” Make your theme movie-tastic by inviting guests to bring a gift that appears somewhere in the film. 


An animated online invite with the words “White Elephant” on a white sheepskin background.White Sheepskin” Flyer.


Make sure your white elephant party steals the show with Paperless Post

Among the many genres of Christmas parties, the white elephant party stands out. You get to exchange gifts, share laughs, engage in some good-hearted thievery, and enjoy the spirit of the season all at once. With these ideas, you’re sure to make the “nice” list as the host of the best white elephant party of all time. 

With Paperless Post’s share-anywhere invitations, instant event tracking, and comment walls to keep the party alive after the garland comes down, your holiday party is bound to be a winner.

What are you waiting for? Christmas is right around the corner, and you have invitations to send. Happy swapping!


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