When you’re planning a gift swap, one of the first things you have to decide is what to call it. Around here, I use the term White Elephant. However, depending on where you live, you might know the ever-popular Christmas gift exchange as Dirty Santa, Yankee Swap, or any number of other names.
But it’s all the same gift exchange game, right? Well, yes and no.
Just to confuse things more, there are many, many different ways to play the game. Therefore, you might run into someone who insists that, for example, White Elephant and Dirty Santa are different games with different rules.
It’s enough to get your tinsel in a tangle. But look at it this way: these differences exist because this type of gift exchange has such a rich tradition behind it. Let’s dive into that tradition and try to sort out this motley crew of gift exchange terms.
This seems to be the most common name for the type of gift swap we’re talking about. Even in places where another name predominates, a lot of people have still heard of White Elephant. Thus, you really can’t go wrong using this name for your gift exchange.
The term White Elephant seems to refer to the type of gifts these events are known for. As the story goes, the King of Siam used to give albino elephants to those who displeased him, knowing the cost to maintain the animals would far outweigh their usefulness. In other words, he took his revenge via gag gift.
We don’t know if that story is true or just a piece of colorful folklore. What we do know is that these days, White Elephant gifts aren’t always gag gifts. In fact, you could argue that the game is more fun (and fair) if there are lots of good presents for people to fight over.
Speaking of fighting over presents, here’s a name that emphasizes the cutthroat nature of the game. Dirty Santa is a popular term for gift exchanges in the American South. Like many other synonyms for White Elephant, the term reflects the fact that you can “do someone dirty” by stealing their gift.
This term is used in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The word pollyanna is based on a 1913 novel of the same name, and refers to someone who is naively optimistic. In the context of a gift exchange, it could relate to the hope that you’re going to get something better by selecting an unknown gift from the pile, rather than selecting something that’s already been opened.
This term is popular in New England and other parts of the eastern United States. While there’s no solid information about the origins of the term, it’s said to hearken back to the American Civil War and prisoner exchanges between the North and South that occurred at Christmastime.
To some people, there’s a difference between a Yankee Swap and a White Elephant gift exchange – the former features desirable items, whereas the latter is all about gag gifts. That distinction makes sense given the supposed history of these terms, but for most people, they’re synonymous.
I’ve covered the main alternatives for what this site refers to as a White Elephant gift exchange, but there are many others. Here’s a list of some of the more popular ones to be aware of:
- Black Santa
- Chinese Auction
- Cutthroat Christmas
- Greedy Punter
- Machiavellian Christmas
- Naughty Santa
- The Grinch Game
- Thieves’ Christmas
- Thieving Elves
- Thieving Secret Santa
- Rob Your Neighbor
As you can see, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to naming your gift exchange. If you don’t like any of the above ideas, you could even come up with your own name. Who knows, maybe you’ll start a new gift exchange tradition of your own!