A popular Christmas tradition amongst families, friends, and workplaces has become the White Elephant gift exchange—AKA Dirty Santa, Yankee Swap, or whatever else your festive bunch may call it. But before you head out to buy your $20 gag gift for this surprisingly intense game of swaps and steals, there are a few things you should know.
Gifts For The Naughty List
The legend of this gift-giving phenomenon can be traced back to an ancient practice from the kingdom of Siam—now, Thailand. As a token of his dissatisfaction,—yes, if you were on the “naughty list,” you still got a gift—the ruler presented his subjects with a rare albino elephant. You would think that such a grand gift would act as a gesture of appreciation, but its intent was actually quite the opposite.
In Thai and Buddhist cultures, these rare white elephants are said to have a sacred quality. So, why was presenting them as a gift treated as a punishment? Well, according to the story, those who received this special gift were inevitably unable to refuse it. And as an added rule of thumb, they were unable to put the sacred animals to work. This gift was both a gigantic burden—because hello, it’s a literal elephant—and also extremely expensive. The upkeep for one of these pinkish-colored giants was said to cause true financial ruin.
These parameters made the jumbo-sized gift both valuable and yet, completely useless. Sound like any gift you’ve ever returned home with?
Toung-Taloung And P.T. Barnum
Theory number two for the name of this game involves the circus impresario, Phineas T. Barnum. Of course, the odd nature of an albino elephant was an act right up Barnum’s alley. “Toung-Talong,” his infamous white elephant, traveled from Burma to England for its big debut at the Royal Zoological Gardens in London.
When Toung-Talong was finally revealed to the public, spectators were less than impressed. Expecting to see a milky-white, pure albino elephant, they were disappointed with its slightly-lighter greyish pink color, only a few hues lighter than a traditional African elephant. To no surprise, and sparing no expense, Barnum gave one last-ditch effort to ship Toung-Talong to the United States to join his circus.
Unfortunately, his American audience was also unimpressed with this hopeful-star. The much-anticipated reveal of the white elephant was a total let-down, making it a now-burdensome possession that cost Barnum a pretty penny. Seems like we’ve heard this story before.
Now the validity of these legend stories—like any—are up for debate and could very well just be fictional tales told over time. History of the Siamese monarchs would point to this story as being totally fake—mostly because owning an albino elephant at this time was an extremely incredible honor, so why would they give them away as cruel and unusual punishment to those they didn’t like?
And as for Barnum, maybe his ventures with Toung-Talong were a total flop—but, did the disappointment brought upon spectators by this pinkish elephant create the backbone of a tacky gift exchange?
Whether you choose to give in to the theories of the white elephant story, this spirited game is meant to be a fun way to give and receive useless and hilarious gag gifts surrounded by family, friends, and, apparently, those whom you are dissatisfied with. So, happy stealing, and may “number 1” go to your selfish cousin who ate the last piece of pie.