White Elephant parties, sometimes called Dirty Santa parties or Yankee Swaps, are especially popular after the holidays for good reason. Often, guests are invited to bring an obnoxious or seemingly useless gift they’ve received to “swap” with other guests during the party, giving people a way to get rid of unwanted presents that they’ve received. The process of swapping often leads to some laughable moments, which adds to the fun of the event.
If you’re interested in throwing a White Elephant (or Dirty Santa or Yankee Swap) party, here are some suggestions for making it a fun and festive occasion:
• Outline clear rules on the invitations. Let everyone know if they’re expected to bring a gift they’ve already received to swap, or if they can shop for something new to bring. If guests are expected to bring something new or if they can shop, set a dollar limit or range so that everyone brings something of similar value. Be sure to also let people know if whacky or tacky gifts are encouraged, and whether they should wrap the gifts for exchange.
• Have fun with the evening’s attire. If you’re calling it a White Elephant party, it might be fun to ask everyone to dress in white. If you’re encouraging guests to bring whacky and tacky gifts, you might tell guests that there will be an Ugly Sweater contest on the agenda. If it’s a Dirty Santa party, ask guests to wear their pajamas and robes. Whatever you decide, be sure to include the attire on the invitations and have a prize for the best-dressed guest.
• Decorate accordingly. For a White Elephant party, it’s fun (and easy) to decorate the party rooms in white. Use white tablecloths, white candles, white dishes, white napkins, and white flowers. Drape white tulle and crepe paper around light fixtures, doorways, mantles, and stairways. Tie clusters of white balloons around your home’s interior and exterior.
• Serve white food. Put together a cocktail buffet of white and light colored foods. You could serve finger sandwiches with white bread, ranch dip with whole mushrooms and cauliflower, tortellini on skewers with alfredo sauce, brie with crackers, hot onion dip, mini cupcakes with vanilla icing, and other white culinary delights. You might even make the party a potluck event, challenging the guests to come up with some creative white foods to bring.
• Display the gifts. Whether wrapped or unwrapped, have a spot to display all the gifts so that guests can peruse them while they eat and socialize. This is especially fun if some of the wrapped gifts are oddly shaped and people can guess what might be inside.
• Review the rules. When everyone gathers for the gift exchange, take a minute to talk about the rules, especially if you have first-time guests. Typically, people either draw numbers to see who goes first or the oldest member of the group opens the first gift. Sometimes, people sit in a circle and start on the host’s left and take turns going around the room. The first guest selects and opens the first gift, and then the second guest has the option to “steal” the first gift or to open a new one. (If gifts are unwrapped, they can just choose what they want from the table.). As each guest takes their turn, they can choose to “steal” a gift or open or select a new gift. When a guest gets their gift stolen, they open or select a new gift. Depending on the number of guests you have and how long you want to play the gift game, you may want to set a limit to the number of times a gift may be stolen.
• Add some extra entertainment. While the gift exchange is the highlight of the evening, you might want to have some additional entertainment planned to add to the fun and to keep your guests engaged:For example, you could have a few inexpensive door prizes on hand to give away. In keeping with the white elephant theme, you might even want to choose funny items or gag gifts as door prizes. When your guests enter, give each person a picture or drawing of a white elephant with a number assigned, and then draw from those numbers for door prize winners. Or, compile a trivia quiz about elephants, and award prizes based on the correct answers. You could also play “Pin The Tail On The White Elephant.” Even grown ups can enjoy this version of a popular kids party game. Instead of a drawing of a donkey, just affix a drawing of a white elephant to a wall. Let guests take turn donning a blindfold (white, of course) as they try to “pin” a tail on the elephant. The person who gets closest wins a prize.
• Help a charity. In addition to the gift that guests bring to swap, ask them to also bring a gift or food item to be donated to a local charitable cause. Be sure to make guests aware of any donation guidelines, such as price limits or recipient ages, and specify whether the gifts should be wrapped. Your guests will enjoy knowing that they are helping a good cause while they are also having a good time.
• Make it an annual event. Throwing a White Elephant party every year is fun for many reasons. The same gifts often come back to make appearances each year, bringing lots of memories and laughter when they are opened. You can invite the same core group of people each year, interspersing some new faces to keep things lively. If you make your party a tradition, be sure to take a photo of the group every year and display the framed photos as part of your party decorations.
White Elephant parties can be a welcomed respite from the winter doldrums and inevitable holiday letdown. For a successful party, remember to do as much in advance as you can so that you can enjoy the festivities yourself. It’s much more important for the host or hostess to be relaxed and engaged than it is for everything to be perfect.
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