Life Lessons Learned Through a Gift Exchange

Everyone has probably been to a “White Elephant Gift Exchange” and if you don’t know what it is, think about a gift you received in the past. It could be something that you smiled and said thank you but knew it wasn’t something you would use. It’s probably still in the box! Got it? Now for the white elephant gift exchange, you would wrap it up and bring it to the party – without knowing whom would take it home.


When it is time for the gift exchange, you would draw numbers or have your name chosen from a hat. When it is your turn, you select any gift from the table and take it back to your seat to open it.

Now the next name or number is up and they can choose to either steal the gift from the first person or opt to select one of the unopened gifts from the table. If they take your gift, then you get to steal a gift from someone else (not the same person that stole yours) or select another unopened package from the table.

The further down the list you land either through number or name, the more gifts have been opened and your choice switches from the “unknown” gifts on the table or something someone else is holding.

This continues until everyone has a gift. It may not be a gift you like…but the exchange is complete.

Every year we attend holiday parties that have this white elephant gift exchange as part of the evening events. Our family does this as part of our family reunion each year.

I personally enjoy watching the exchange play out, and watching people get really upset when someone steals their gift is funny, considering most of the exchanges have a cash limit that is usually pretty low value.

However, I do believe there are some life lessons that we can learn from a white elephant gift exchange.

  1. Hold onto physical things lightly.
    As in this exchange, the gift you just opened or stole from someone else can be taken away in a heartbeat. While this is part of the game, it’s also part of life – when the stakes are so much higher than a trinket. How fast can everything be lost in a fire, theft, accident, or an investment?  In less time that you can react, you can lose physical things you may have placed too high a value on. While having nice things is nice, if we place too high a value on them, it can be devastating to lose them. We can’t take the “things” we collect with us to Heaven, and being willing to let them go when they can be used to help another person blesses us as well as them.
  2. Rejoice in the relationships.
    Games like this gift exchange will expose the condition of the relationships of those participating. If the participants have a close and loving relationship, it is a fun activity. Yes, mock shock and horror may be exclaimed, but the laughter and fellowship with each other top you having lost that little trinket. This exchange can also show where the cracks are in the relationships of the group of people. Does someone feel left out? Does someone really get upset when their gift is stolen? When you look at the group gathered together to celebrate, does this person always seem to be on the fringe of the group? That is the relationship that you need to invest in and build.

    Our relationships need to be focused on the fellowship and heart strings with each other and not on the little gift or “things” others can do for us. Relationships are not about us. They are not about what you can do for me. They need to be about how together we are better than when we are alone.

  3. Be generous in all things.
    In the game, being generous could be that you brought something that was super popular, or valued at more than the guidelines, or perhaps something that several of the participants could really use. This gift that you brought (remember though that no one is supposed to know where the gift came from), may be stolen a dozen times before it ends up in the hands of the person that will take it home.

The last time I participated in a white elephant gift exchange, I was the last person to take a turn. I had watched as gifts were opened and so I knew what everyone had in their hands. There was one unwrapped gift on the table. I finally chose to steal a gift instead of taking the last wrapped gift from the table. The gift I selected had already been stolen several times because it was a neat gift and one that most of us would be able to use at home.

Oh the disappointment and hurt on the person’s face when I stole her cherished gift. She was really upset over it, although she herself had stolen the gift from someone else when it was her turn. Upset or not, the gift was mine to take because that’s how the gift exchange works. As I sat looking at my gift, I noticed the person that had to select the last wrapped gift off the table was holding her new gift and was trying to keep up her composure for the party, but it was clear she was disappointed.

The gift in my hands fairly quickly lost the “joy” gained by acquiring it through the game. I had not meant to hurt anyone, but my actions had caused another pain. I started considering if I really wanted or needed the gift. I didn’t, it was cute but it would probably end up in the next garage sale or packed away until another holiday party needed a white elephant gift.

I thought about what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

I got up and walked over to the person that I had taken it from and re-gifted it to her. Did I have to do that? Nope, not at all. Would I have been justified to keep the item? Sure, I had gained control of it through the rules of the exchange. But, I also knew that it wasn’t something that I needed so I gave it back with a hug and a wish that she would get enjoyment out of the item. Her joy and smile meant more to me than the trinket.

In Hebrews 13:5 Paul writes:  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

Ladies, during the holiday season when we are often focused on things around us and forget the real reason for the season; let’s stop and refocus on Jesus. He was the Ultimate Gift sent from God. He was the only way for us to have a relationship with God.

As busy as things get around the holidays, we need to remember to value people and relationships over physical things, and to be generous with our time and “things” because of how grateful we are for what God has done for us and for others in our life.

While the holiday season may bring our attention to others more, it shouldn’t be the only time we practice these life lessons. Let’s start the New Year with a commitment to ourselves and those sisters in Christ to be there for each other. Together we are stronger than when we are alone.