The Gift That Keeps On Being Given
Article By | Melanie Wanzek, CTW Features
Just because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure doesn’t mean it makes a good Christmas present. A look at the odd tradition of re-gifting:
Jodi Newbern’s introduction to the idea of re-gifting began early. At six years old, she tried to give her mom a box of gloves that her mom already owned. For others, the initiation into the world of re-gifting came later – when they unwrapped a gorgeously wrapped box to find a hot pad with Elvis’ face smirking back at the annual white elephant party.
Newbern, the author of “Regifting Revival: A Guide to Reusing Gifts Graciously” (Synergy Books, 2009), has grown up re-gifting. Though re-gifting and white elephant parties are often thought of as tacky and tasteless, she says the traditional holiday exchange is an opportunity to recycle gift waste, reduce clutter and use your creativity.
“White elephant parties are a great idea,” she says. There are countless varieties. “Everyone can bring things they don’t want, have an open exchange, bring wrapped gifts to pass around, or even make bids on gifts. You end up with something someone else didn’t want, so it doesn’t go to waste.”
“White elephant” is an expression used to describe something valuable that has, or will, become a burden to the one who possesses it, according to Albert Jack, author of “Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of Phrases We Use Every Day,” (Harper Collins, 2005). As the legend goes, in Siam (present-day Thailand), white elephants were highly valued. When discovered, they became the property of the king. The king would occasionally give the huge beasts as royal gifts to subjects who displeased him. The king’s gift – impossible to refuse and costly to keep – drove the hapless new owners to financial ruin. Jack writes that the phrase arrived in England when empire-builders brought it home with them and began using the phrase to refer to impressive yet useless structures.
While there are plenty of theories – and even a Wikipedia entry – the origins of white elephant gift exchanges are murky. Cele Otnes, professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with expertise in gift-giving, says perhaps the ritual was limited to certain cultural subgroups. “Holiday traditions that are widely celebrated or supported by marketing have origins that are typically better developed and more easily traceable,” she says.
Nowadays, various familiar exchanges carry the white elephant label, ranging from the “most ridiculous gift you can find” theme to more focused parties, such as an ugly lamp swap. Another white elephant exchange call for attendees to bring useful items they received but never actually used, such as glassware, kitchen utensils or wine. Newbern suggests a holiday-themed white elephant exchange, where people bring the best and worst gifts received in years past and never used, from Christmas ornaments to gingerbread cookie jars.
Usually, white elephant exchanges begin with everyone drawing a number. The guest who picks number one selects a gift, unwraps the package and can opt to keep it or to pass. Subsequent guests choose a gift from the pile or “steal” one already opened by someone else. Otnes says the process continues until the pile is depleted. Usually, an item can only change hands a certain number of times, perhaps three, until it can no longer be swapped.
Aficionados of white elephant gifts believe that while almost any gift can be re-gifted, how it is given makes all the difference. “Sometimes people think just change the tag and it’s good, but there are different things you can do to make it unique and thoughtful,” Otnes says. In a process she calls “gracious re-gifting,” Newbern suggests embellishing a gift you received but never used by adding personal touches. Repackage it or mix it with other unwanted gifts to create a white elephant theme basket.
Otnes cautions that white elephant parties carry a certain amount of social risk with them and should be thrown with caution. In a poor economy, exchanging unwanted or slightly goofy items may not be as much fun as it was in better times. Rather than participating in a white elephant extravaganza, families or co-workers may settle for simply drawing names and buying for one person.
However, Newbern remains convinced that white elephant exchanges can be an excellent way to save money and reduce stress at a time when many families could use a break.
After all, exchanging white elephant gifts is preferable to dropping the gift-giving entirely, she says.
“Our family decided we will have a re-gift Christmas this year. When you make it apparent, it takes the pressure off, so people can have fun with it. You can still give great gifts without feeling cheesy or tacky.”