Have you ever wondered why we call our popular gift exchange parties “White Elephant parties”? Most people are familiar with the symbolic meaning of the term “White Elephant” – in our culture, it refers to an object that probably isn’t worth very much, and that the owner doesn’t particularly want to keep. A White Elephant party, therefore, is generally viewed as an opportunity to get rid of your own unwanted item in the hope that whatever you receive in return will be more useful to you. If not, well, at least you get to go to a party and have some fun and laughter with friends and family!
However, coming from this perspective, it’s rather strange to look into the history of White Elephant giving. How on earth did White Elephants gain this reputation as typically useless and unwanted gifts, when the real story of White Elephant giving portrays them as sacred, celebrated, even holy creatures?! In Thailand and Burma, for example, and various other countries in Asia, people traditionally believe that White Elephants bring power, fertility and prosperity. Historically, anyone who owned one of these creatures had to treat it like a servant treats a master! The elephant would live in luxurious housing, and would be adorned with fine robes and jewels. It would dine on the finest specially prepared cuisine, and receive visitors who would admire and even worship it!
But here’s the catch. Think about how much it would cost to feed an elephant – even one that was living in “normal” captivity (minus jewels, robes etc.). They’re pretty big, after all. Now imagine just how enormous those costs would be if you had to treat your White Elephant in the manner described above. As a result, the only people who could really afford to keep White Elephants tended to be kings, who ensured that their magnificent pets had the best possible care and pampering – for the death of a White Elephant foretold disaster and tragedy for its owner.
With all this in mind, put yourself in the position of a lowly and humble citizen who has somehow found favor with the king. The king is impressed; he wants to congratulate you and honor you! So he presents you with the most sacred and important gift there is: that’s right, a White Elephant. What an honor… something on the level of an American being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, wouldn’t you say? Unfortunately, being an ordinary civilian, you can’t easily give the elephant the luxurious lifestyle to which it is accustomed.
And so we have our modern day concept of White Elephants. A White Elephant naturally came to symbolize a prized possession whose maintenance cost exceeded its worth. It seems that White Elephant parties aren’t meant to contain junk after all – just try telling a Burmese king that his White Elephant is worthless!