The Christmas tradition of gift giving finds its roots in a Christmas story, from the three kings who followed the northern star to Bethlehem bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. But many centuries later, European peoples extrapolated the tradition of gift giving into a wide array of traditions, some blended with winter solstice traditions and many of which have been carried over into modern celebrations around the Christian world.
Stockings are believed come from modern day Turkey where Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century monk, is believed to have placed gold into the socks of poor man’s home who needed money for his daughter’s dowries. Dutch nuns too are believed to be behind some of the traditions of giving, sneaking into homes of the poor and placing treats and fruits for children. This later turned into the placement of wooden shoes outside to be filled with treats by “Sinterklaas.” The blending of European traditions in the melting pot of America from Father Christmas, old Saint Nicholas, and Sinterklaas gave us our modern-day Santa Claus.
How these Christmas traditions morph and change over the centuries is worthy of a doctorate in history. For instance, how Santa got his sleigh and how reindeer became part of the lore can be traced by to children’s books printed in the 1870s in New York.
But where did the ubiquitous White Elephant gift exchange come from? The White Elephant today consists of unwanted, used, or ridiculous items being passed along to recipients who may or may not want them. It’s a luck of the draw. I attended two separate White Elephant exchanges this year, which allowed me to purge my shelves of some under-utilized and obsolete items, making room for more unwanted items.
The White Elephant has been popularized in America for several decades. One theory traces its origin story, not from old Europe as many of the Christmas holiday giving does, but from Thailand. It is said that the king of Siam (now Thailand) used to give his subjects with whom he was displeased, an albino elephant. The elephants had special care needs and were quite expensive to take care of, so a gift of this nature was a burden, not a blessing. The recipients could not refuse a gift from the kings, so they had to accept the animal with regret and live a life of destitute and shame trying to take care of the white elephant.
The second source of the White Elephant comes from the big top. The story goes something like this. Phineas Barnum, the showman, spent much money and energy advertising his exotic new white elephant to the European stage. But upon the reveal of this prized animal, the audience was unimpressed to see a slightly lighter elephant with pinkish spots, and so he shipped it off to America, where the crowds were equally unenthusiastic, relegating the animal to be an expensive burden with little payback.
Whichever story is correct, or not, the tradition has become as familiar as candy canes and jingle bells. This year I came away with a giant, used candle and a set of “offensive” pens. Thankfully, I was able to pass one gift onto the next White Elephant, and therefore ended with a net loss. What’s the most ridiculous White Elephant you’ve received?
P.S. In response to last week’s column, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a 1954 musical movie, was suggested by Pat Weyhmeyer from Newby Creek as a holiday favorite. So, queue that up, pour a hot cocoa and enjoy!