useful | enduring | unembellished

by Greg Kagay

White elephant crowd pleasers: Party-specific jigsaw puzzles (this one for a French, wine or food club)

Win at White Elephant Gift Exchanges

Offer Something Useful

Games of Chance—a Chance to Please

Master white elephant gift exchanges and enhance these events for others: Armed with a little consideration, you yourself can make these events a force for good, instead of depressing affairs that only a jackass could love. White elephant exchanches being games of chance, one cannot be assured of coming home with anything other than some less-than-worthless item. But one can choose a thoughtful offering that will render some other fortunate party goer a white elephant gift exchange winner.

Junk Not

Crafters and hobbyists always need organization, so they can never have enough toolboxes. Consider steel examples, available in many shapes and sizes.

The short definition of a "white elephant" is something its owner cannot dispose of, and/or something obtrusive that does not carry its own weight financially (or in terms of its utility). But, as white elephants relate to gift exchanges, what fun is giving and getting only junk that you cannot dispose of? The key to winning white elephant gift exchanges is offering gifts that are desirable to some guests while being of little, no, or negative use to others. This dichotomy maintains the exchange's social tension.

Avoid Plastic

White elephant gift exchanges often begin, devolve and end as massive celebrations of plastic clutter. One cringes at the mountains of plastic garbage seen offered at past white elephant gift exchanges. Of course plastic is everywhere, and economical, so an anti-plastic posture is more of an ideal than a rule. But those truly trying to enhance someone else's experience will do well to seek out not-plastic and not-so-plastic gifts.

Don't Gag

Desparate for a white elephant gift idea? Grab a Maglite Mini.

Nothing says "I ran out of time and just stopped at Walgreens before coming here." like offering something labeled "As Seen on TV". Gag gifts and white elephant exchanges seem to attract each other at the atomic level; be sure plenty of "hilarious" garbage will be passed around without your like contribution. Need a Clapper, Egg Genie, or LED toilet bowl light, the white elephant exchange is your event. Meanwhile, gag gifts are the favored currency of practical jokers and other tedious species. Avoid contributing to our GDJP (Gross Domestic Junk Product) by offering something of quality and merit.

Think Hobbies and Crafts

Almost any party will host guests with various popular hobby and crafting interests, as well as generally handy people. These folks are easy to please. At the same time, one also finds folks with primary interests not requiring tools or supplies. These folks operate just fine with only TVs, movie theaters, smart phones and libraries. The latter group is hard to buy for and, well, really, they seem very content fending for themselves. It is the former group, with tangible hobbies, that is prime territory for white elephant gift giving.

Package one of these small Lodge melting pots for a group including cooks and watch those cooks clamor: useful, durable and not everyone has one; its heft alone will draw attention to the package.

Tools are a great category for exploiting the handy/non-handy party guest split. In my experience, about one-half of my friends is handy and the other half is not. Consequently, about one half of my friends appreciates nice tools, and about one half has no use for them.

Consider offering good, simple tools that fill two bills. First, these are tools everybody should have, so you will truly help out anyone that receives his/her first specimen. Second, most people could actually use multiple examples of these tools. For example, I keep several screwdrivers in my garage but one high-quality all-purpose version in my kitchen drawer. Likewise, my workshop is full of tape measures but I also keep one in my glove compartment. For something more expensive, some version of a steel toolbox is a great gift for folks handy in either the garage or craft studio.

This tool discussion brings up a good point: Instead of steering yourself to somewhere like Walgreens for last-minute white elephant gifts, consider a hardware store or home center. (Desparate? Grab a Maglite Mini.)

A final thought on useful gifts. Other categories of hobbyist to consider include cooks and gardeners. These groups offer boundless considerations of high-quality, non-plastic, useful gifts. Myself, I would rather receive a big bag of quality peppercorns or sea salt, or a large terra cotta planter, over a plastic Egg Genie any day.

Fun and Games

The Qwirkle game features wooden, not plastic playing pieces and offers mind-challenging fun for players over six-years old.

Considering another tack, the whole point of white elephant gift exchanges is fun and games. So why not start there for gift idea inspiration?

Board games seem to have fallen out of favor as primary family entertainment, but they remain terrific passtimes for both family and friendly gatherings. Great games both offer mental challenge and can be played by people of different ages simultaneously; they add multiple layers of social connection and development. One game I love ticks all of these boxes and features painted wooden pieces, not plastic. It also features great graphics and is recommended for ages six and up. That game is Qwirkle. It's easy to learn but victory usually goes to the more mindful competitors.

Another fun offering is a party-specific jigsaw puzzle. Match the puzzle image to the group hosting the celebration to assure yourself a place on the white elephant prize podium. Celebrating with your camera club? Offer a camera puzzle. French club? Paris City Puzzle. Bicycle club? New Yorker Bicycle Shop puzzle. Bird watchers? Bird puzzle. Texans? Texas puzzle. New Yorkers? New Yorker View of the World puzzle. Many people love jigsaw puzzles and publishers offer near endless, terrifically inspired images. White elephant gift exchanges make great opportunities to share them.


When searching for white elephant gifts consider leaning on the Invaluablist ideals: useful, enduring, unembellished. (Here is a growing list of such items.) Gifts with these traits are sure to please and will not contribute to our GDJP.

-- Greg Kagay

[6 December 2018]