Every January since Jeff and I have been married, we have been invited to a white elephant party in the Philadelphia area. Actually, Jeff has been invited for umpteen years, but since he swears that he cannot remember life before me, we’ll go with a running eight years now. This is the first year that we sent a ‘yes’ as an RSVP. The party is a yearly event hosted by people that Jeff has known since his college days, and his best friend Gary was going too.
For those of you who, like my parents, have never heard of a white elephant party, here is how it goes: participating party-goers bring a wrapped present to put in a pile with presents brought by other party guests. Ideally, the present should be something received as a Christmas or holiday gift, but unwanted or un-needed by the bringer. So you get a wide variety of gifts, from the nice, to the naughty, to the just downright insane.
The names of all participating party-goers are put into a hat, which are pulled and announced one by one. When the first participant’s name is called, he or she walks up to the pile of wrapped gifts and chooses a gift to un-wrap in front of everyone. The next person whose name is called has the option of ‘stealing’ that unwrapped gift, or choosing another from the pile of unwrapped gifts. The third person then has two unwrapped gifts to chose to ‘steal’ from, or pick their own gift to unwrap. And so on and so on. The host or hostess sets a limit to how many times a gift can be ‘stolen’.
I hosted a practice at my house just after Christmas, with just a few friends. Since there really weren’t enough people to ‘steal’ gifts, the whole thing was over in about three minutes, even taking time to refill wine glasses. The fun that night wasn’t found in the game. Nevertheless, I had played without my ugly competitive streak blowing wide open and I felt prepared for our upcoming trip to Philadelphia.
Nope: I have never seen such a white elephant party in my life. Over 80 (yes – eighty) people participated. People who didn’t bring gifts had their names thrown in the basket; the host and hostess had enough for everyone. Even Firstborn had her name put in, though I forbade her to choose any gift that looked remotely alcoholic (without checking with me first). At the set hour, the host and hostess set the rules (only three steals on any one gift). Each time a gift was ‘stolen’, a sticker would be placed on it lest alcohol caused any forgetfulness.
There was a bottle of Dom Perignon that was stolen three times long before any of my group’s names came up, so I have still never tasted the stuff. At the other end of the spectrum, the woman who unwrapped a size 9 1/2 pair of Men’s black Nike sneakers in a questionable-looking box sat hopefully holding them out to everyone who approached the gift table after her. There were no takers.
With eighty plus people involved, the game dragged on and on … and on. Jeff’s name was called about an hour into things. We were getting hot and cranky and Firstborn had had enough of “this old people’s party”. Under Jeff’s name, I stole a set of gigantic vases that I have no practical use for, and then promptly went and hid in the entertainment room as to avoid being a victim of theft myself.
Firstborn had her eye on a beautiful white orchid plant, but by the time her name was called almost two hours into the game, she was too tired to track it down and steal it. She unwrapped a box of used placemats and some unopened DVD’s, then sat back down to stare at the wall and sweat.
Finally! My name was called! I took my time. I’d waited for more than two hours. I hunted down that white orchid that my baby wanted, and stole it from someone’s protesting grandmother. She said “please …” and I said “Thank you” as I snatched it out of her hands and let the hostess smack a theft sticker on it.
As I got back to where my small tired group was standing, our friend Gary’s name was called. He looked at that white orchid and said “Oh, good, I’m stealing it.”
I stopped, looked him in the eye, and with Firstborn looking on, said “I’m so sorry Gary. It’s already been stolen three times. It’s done.”
Gary looked me in the eye, then looked at the clear plastic enveloping the beautiful pure white orchid – the plastic with only one sticker on it, indicating that the gift had only been stolen one time, and being my husband’s best friend and the supremely intelligent man that he is, said “Oh, okay.”
I don’t know what Gary ended up with, but the next time he wants to steal a white orchid from me, I really will let him have it. And for next year’s white elephant party, I’m driving up the day before, getting a good afternoon nap and leaving the little ones in the hotel with a babysitter.