My wife and I went to a “white elephant” Christmas party last week. We were asked to bring a wrapped gift that cost as little as possible and was something we wanted to dump on someone else.
The term “white elephant” dates back to ancient times when Southeast Asian kings would give some poor slob who they didn’t like an actual white elephant. It wasn’t a token of affection.
Because white elephants were considered sacred, the subject couldn’t sell, eat, shoot or rent out the animal. He had to keep the damn thing and pay the high cost of maintenance while it gradually dragged him into poverty, which was the whole idea.
Note: White elephants (real ones) are still considered sacred in some cultures. Until 1917, the flag of Thailand featured a white elephant. It’s probably a good idea not to refer to one disparagingly even today.
Today, the term popularly refers to something that isn’t worth the cost of owning even if the cost is just that it’s taking up space in your basement that a dead horse could more constructively occupy.
Common “white elephant” items are unused exercise equipment, unreadable books, incomprehensible art and gifts from a well-meaning but clueless relative.
White elephants can also be government programs, construction projects, wars and elected officials. Unfortunately, these are also things that can’t be easily dumped on some unsuspecting fool regardless of how much gift wrapping is used.
The best white elephant gifts are items that are not only useless, but also something that would embarrass a person to be seen holding, like a gospel rap CD or even a Miley Cyrus poster.
For our white elephant gifts last week, we took six cans of expired chili and a scented romantic candle labeled “Magic Meadows” but that smelled more like diaper rash ointment.
In return, we scored a 20-pound badly chipped ceramic unicorn and a collection of old Don Lapre money-making cassette tapes. Prior to leaving, I surreptitiously slid the tapes under our host’s couch. No way did I want to be seen with those.
Over the years a white elephant gift also evolved into expensive practical jokes, such as high-end lingerie, an artificial goat insemination kit or even fish bait salmon eggs relabeled as “Caviar.”
The truth is you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a white elephant gift. Just about everyone has something laying around the house they would love to get rid of and would thoroughly enjoy watching someone else drag home.
A little forethought helps. Before throwing something away or donating it to charity, consider saving it for those times when you’re expected to bring a white elephant gift to an office or church party.
Despite the original intent of a white elephant gift, sometimes you can get lucky and open something you actually want. It doesn’t happen very often.
One year I opened a white elephant gift and found a set of those kitsch Relief Society resin grapes so popular back in the 1960’s and ’70’s.
Everyone laughed when I expressed delight. The laugh was on them. The purple resin grapes turned out to fit almost exactly a 40-millimeter gun I had at home.
Tuesday, we received another white elephant Christmas party invitation. I told my wife we were running low on utterly useless and annoying stuff to give away. She said we could just wrap one of my books.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.