I recall one Christmas long ago when I was living in San Diego, California, when I was invited to a white elephant exchange* held in the lovely, old-fashioned home of a Sierra Club member. The small parlor was beautifully decorated and forty or fifty of us gathered in close, happy rows around the twinkling artificial tree. (No severing of a living tree from its roots to the earth for these kind and gentle folks.)
We were supposed to bring a gift valuing no more than twenty dollars, but I had an expensive, cunningly designed miniature television that I wanted to “dispose” of so I wrapped and brought it to the white elephant exchange. Palm-sized televisions were new on the market**, preceding the hand-held devices that would bring the internet world into the palm of your hand in the twenty-first century, and most people did not know about tiny TVs. But whatever the size of the television, the channels offered only the same old boring, even offensive programming, I wanted rid of it. I rationalized that because the tiny TV was of no value to me, and it was used, that it now met the under twenty dollars requirement.
They took turns choosing a gift from under the tree, laughing good-naturedly when the next person decided to take their gift instead of what they could have taken from under the tree, as per the rules of the white elephant exchange, until they got to my gift that is. The woman who unwrapped my tiny TV was enchanted with it, she fawned over it, she held it up in delight for everyone to see. But then the next person to draw a gift took it from her. She protested but the white elephant exchange rules prevailed. Then the next person to draw a gift took it from the man who had taken it from her, so now two people were unhappy, the woman on the verge of tears and the man in gruff indignation at losing the precious toy. Soon someone stepped in and returned the tiny TV to the woman who had first drawn it, saying that the gift was too extravagant to follow the usual procedure. No one knew who had brought the tiny TV to exchange and I did not reveal myself. The mood was spoiled. People were standing and milling about in agitation. Those good people had become angry and excited, and it was my fault. I knew better than to bring such an enticing gift. I had wanted to see what they would do with it.
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* “A white elephant gift exchange, Yankee swap or Dirty Santa is a party game where white elephant gifts are exchanged during festivities. The goal of a white elephant party is usually to entertain rather than to gain. The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals' upkeep costs. ...”
Caption: White Elephant Pandemonium
by Annmarie Throckmorton 2018