What is a White Elephant?

Posted by PartyWeDo on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White elephant facts and myths

white-elephant facts

White Elephant as a gift…

In popular culture the term “White Elephant” refers to an object that isn’t worth very much or something that the current owner doesn’t particularly want to keep. Many feel that these  gifts are something worthy of re-gifting at the next holiday party. Wacky, crazy or unique white elephant gifts are common words used to search the internet for presents during the holidays. But is this really what a white elephant gift represents?

White Elephant as an object…

Some label a project that has an enormous production cost with little apparent future return, as a white elephant. There have been naval ships, sports stadiums and even huge water projects which some term as a “white elephant”. Many times these  projects create a huge political debate that lasts for decades. Is an expensive project anything like a real white elephant?

These descriptions represent a few of the myths and false representations of the real facts concerning the white elephant.

The White Elephant is an animal…

How on earth did a unique animal like the albino (white) elephant gain this reputation as a useless and unwanted gift, or the object of potential financial ruin? This is particularly interesting when the actual history of these rare  elephants revolves around an animal of very high value and with the sacred respect of its admirers.

In Thailand and Burma for example, people traditionally believe that white elephants will bring power, fertility and prosperity to those who posses the animal. These albino elephants are very rare and highly prized within these Asian cultures. Historically, anyone who owned one of these creatures was required to treat it better than any other animal in the barnyard. These elephants would live in luxurious housing, and would be adorned with fine robes and jewels. The special elephant would have a dedicated keeper who groomed and pampered the beast daily. It would dine on the finest cuisine, and receive visitors who would admire and even worship it!

As a result, the only people who could really afford to keep white elephants tended to be kings, emperors and the very rich. This privileged class of elephant owners would insure that their magnificent pets had the best possible care and pampering. In addition, they wanted their prized albino elephants to live a very long time – for legend held that the death of a royal  elephant foretold disaster and tragedy for its owner.

White elephants were often presented as gifts from one wealthy owner to another as a symbol of friendship and respect between mutual admirers. The gift of a white elephant was similar to someone receiving a Pulitzer Prize today.

The origin of the white elephant myth…

Many believe that our modern interruption of a “white elephant” started when the King of Siam gave an albino elephant to one of the members of his court that had fallen from favor. It is unknown if this story is completely true or if it has been embellished through the decades. Regardless, the story suggests that the king gave him a sacred royal elephant as a gift, with the stipulation that he take great care of this treasured animal or suffer a disaster in his family.

But here’s the catch. Think about how much it would cost to feed an ordinary elephant – then imagine caring for a sacred elephant in a way that was expected by cultural norms. The story suggests that the costs of upkeep for this wonderful gift bankrupted the man of lesser wealth and the King therefore got his revenge.

And so we have our modern day concept of white elephants. These words came to symbolize a prized possession whose maintenance cost exceeded its worth. It is a myth and a great misrepresentation of the real value of an important and thoughtful gift from one admirer to another.

White elephant parties and gifts

The white elephant gift party is a holiday tradition in North America, and because of the myth of the white elephant gift, we think of the event as a place to pass off our hand-me-downs or re-gifting items. The fact is that this idea is OK, because the days of Siamese and Burmese kings are passed and so are the real white elephants. Still, many thoughtful shoppers purchase new gifts for the party that are unique, wacky and crazy.

The importance of the gift exchange really is the opportunity to gather and to share gifts among family and friends.

WARNING: If you were to invite a Burmese king to your party – don’t tell him his white elephant gift is worthless!

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