Whatever you want to call it, there’s a decent chance you’ll be attending some variation of a gag gift exchange in the next couple of weeks — an event that can be oddly stressful and strangely competitive.
All eyes are locked on a table stacked with cheap, hastily wrapped knickknacks brought by friends, family and strangers, each of whom is gunning — subtly or not — to be seen as the Best Gifter at the Party. The designation is usually earned by offering the worst (but most clever) “gift” possible — e.g., a selfie toaster, bag of unicorn farts or set of Hangin’ With the Homies Air Fresheners.
The heightened pressure of these functions stems from the fact that, by definition, there’s nothing ordinary about a “white elephant” present. The term initially meant “extravagant but burdensome gifts whose costs exceed their usefulness.”
These days, of course, the term has broadened to encompass any unwanted gift—the weirder or more disturbing the better.
To better guide us in making these purchases — and to empathize with the absurdity of them — we consulted with three experts on how you can become the best ironic holiday gift-giver ever.
Aileen Avery, lifestyle and gift expert, author of Gift Rap: The History and Art of Gift Giving: Regifting is totally fine for white elephant, but there are also lots of places to find stuff. I like the site PerpetualKid.com; it always has fun, quirky things. There’s also the Aah’s! gift stores. Spencer’s is good for gag gifts and quirky weird stuff, too. Bed Bath & Beyond has bizarre things like hot dog cookers that look like toasters. People love that stuff. Thrift stores are also great.
Margaret Eby, culture editor at ExtraCrispy.com: My strategy is to find something where the very best version of it is still cheap. A spatula like the GIR All-Silicone Ultimate Spatula for $12.95 is a great candidate for that.
Maggie Scivicque Spencer, Marketing Director, ARC Thrift Stores: We’ve kind of taken white elephant to the next level. We have the advantage of being a thrift store with 24 locations in Colorado and our stores are between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet. They’re enormous, cavernous spaces filled with rows and rows and rows of crazy knickknacks. So we get a lot of crazy donations. Like a taxidermied schnauzer, donated from a little old lady who passed and clearly loved this animal. We didn’t want him to go to a bad home so we kept him and named him Rusty. He’s become our little mascot and lives on my window sill.
Avery: A lot of times the best way to go is to bring the ugliest thing you can find. Ask relatives to dig into their garages and find something totally hideous that they’re dying to get rid of. Then again, you might want to bring something really cool. Relatives and neighbors are good resources there, too — most people you know have something that they don’t know what to do with.
Eby: Pretty much everyone uses a spatula in their daily life and probably owns a crappy one that’s slightly melted. And I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine spatula — you stir your eggs with it, wash it and put it away — but it’s not going to change your life one way or the other. Having a really good spatula actually makes your life much better.
Avery: One gift that everybody wanted at a white elephant party I went to last year was a howling wolf toilet paper holder that howled when you tore off a piece. Toilet paper dispensers are usually popular. There’s one that looks like a Polaroid camera. Or another that’s a butler holding his nose.
Scivicque Spencer: God, how do you even describe some of this stuff? I’ve got a wreath made of Cabbage Patch dolls made by a lady on Pinterest. I have a pink pig wearing red stilettos that’s also a candle holder. I’ve got Walter the farting dog, a stuffed animal that farts. Oh, and miniature squirrel underpants, the back of which say, “Represented by the Small Animal Decency Fund — protect the world from squirrel nudity!”
Avery: You want to make sure of the rules at a white elephant party. For example, sometimes there’s a rule about “no gross presents,” in which case you’re probably not going to bring the unicorn-poop soap. And be clear on the demographic. If it’s a kids’ party, you don’t want to bring something inappropriate for kids.
Eby: If you do bring that spatula, I guarantee the person who ends up with it won’t feel like I did when I got a CD of 1996 Grammy Hits and think, I guess I’ll just give this away in three weeks after an awkward period of time in which I pretend to keep it.
Avery: Most people don’t think enough about wrapping their white elephant gift. I’m a big fan of the fake-out. If it’s something small, throw it in a big ol’ box. People will think it’s going to be amazing, because we all think bigger is better. Even when it’s a Starbucks gift card, I like throwing it in a massive box. Or maybe you want to make it look like an odd shape, so you take bubblewrap and cardboard and make it look really weird. That may make it the thing people stay away from, or it could be the best gift of all. Either way, it’ll be fun.
Scivicque Spencer: People always come into the store with specific white elephant theme-requests — like cat items. Cats are the number-one white elephant gift, hands down. People say, “This is gonna sound crazy but the theme of my white elephant party is — ” and we’re like, “Cats are in aisle two.”
Avery: Be careful what you wish for. A friend went to a white elephant party and one of the items was a beautiful Dolce and Gabbana cellphone case. Everyone wanted it, so she wanted it. And she got it. But when she got home she realized it was for an iPhone 6, and she had an iPhone 5. She ended up having to upgrade her phone to fit the case. Another friend of mine went to a party with a doctor. One of his patients couldn’t pay him and ended up giving him this hideous gold elephant clock as payment. So he brought a gold elephant to a white elephant party, and that’s what she ended up with.
Eby: What’s really nice about this spatula is that it’s heat-proof up to 464 degrees and heat resistant-up to 550 degrees. So you can use it with whatever you’re cooking and not have to worry about leaving it on the side of the pan and having it melt, which is something I’ve done with every spatula I’ve ever owned. You can use it for cooking in a pan — eggs, rice, stir fry — and on a grill for flipping burgers. It’s also nice because the head is usually separate from the body on a spatula, meaning you need to take off the head to clean it. This spatula, however, is one, solid piece that doesn’t get any weird gunk stuck in it.
Avery: As far as the office white elephant party, it depends on the culture of the office. What you might think is funny might be offensive to someone else. That’s why the Secret Santa is often done at offices because you know your coworkers a little more and can shop for them. You can also do something called “Conspiracy Santa,” which is Secret Santa with teams, and more than one person conspires to get a gift for someone else.
Eby: I forgot to add that this spatula is perfect if you need to get to the bottom of a jar of peanut butter. I’m not joking — about any of this either. I am, in fact, going to a white elephant party next week to test out my spatula theory and see how disappointed people look when they unwrap my gift. I’ll let you know how it goes.