Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Tag: holidays

The white elephant in the room

How to make gift-giving fun

A white elephant with a santa hat on.

Image: Pixabay

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

For many years I thought the only way to make gifting possible for large groups was the Secret Santa approach. You know the drill: Everyone’s name goes into a hat and whichever name you pull out is who you buy a gift for. You hope your name got pulled by someone who has at least a vague sense of who you are and not that one coworker or family member who always gives bath salts. You know the one.

Then a few years ago I suddenly found myself in two groups whose holiday traditions included “white elephant” gift exchanges, and it blew my mind.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, it refers to a gift-giving party game in which people “steal” gifts from each other. The game goes by many, many names, including Yankee Swap, Thieving Elves, Dirty Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Devil’s Santa, Steal-a-Thon, Snatchy Christmas Rat (really!), Gift Grab, Cutthroat Christmas, Rob a Santa, Grinch Exchange, The Grinch Game, and a few more that rely on offensive cultural stereotypes and have thus been left out by this editor.

The basic rules, according to WhiteElephantRules.com, are:

1. Each player brings one wrapped gift to contribute to a common pool.

2. Players draw names to determine what order they will go in.

3. The first player selects a gift from the pool and opens it.

4. The following players can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pool or steal a previous player’s gift. Anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can do the same—choose a new gift or steal from someone else.

5. After all players have had a turn, the first player gets a chance to swap the gift he or she is holding for any other opened gift. Anyone whose gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet). When someone declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.

There are almost infinite variations that can make the game more or less stealy, but I’m going to tell you what I think makes this fun for everyone involved, based on the experience I’ve had with the two groups’ versions of the game.

You see, my writing group actually stopped playing the last couple years due to problems with the game. In my opinion, this was caused by a lack of clarity in the requirements for gifts. We’d set a price limit, but that was all. So some people brought genuinely nice gifts, some brought funny ones, and some were clearly trying to rid themselves of unwanted gifts.

This latter group might have been most in keeping with the name of the game—if the internet is to be believed, the name refers to the King of Siam’s propensity for giving albino elephants to courtiers he was displeased with, because the cost of maintaining the animals would be ruinous—but if you’re playing with people you like, the goal shouldn’t be to saddle them with something like that. It’s terrible to open a dud of a present, one that you know will never be stolen from you, and know right away that the game is over for you.

In contrast, my roller derby group has very clear and well-established expectations for gifts: socks. This works because it’s something that the members of the group pretty universally are into and because it means that they all have roughly the same worth. Yet within that framework there’s room for infinite creativity, and it’s terrific to see what people come up with hoping their socks will be the most sought after.

If you aren’t willing to go with as narrow a category as that, at least consider explicitly stating whether the gifts should be things people might actually want or simply outrageous things that are meant to entertain. As long as everyone’s on the same page, a good time should ensue!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Are you feeling independent today?

Photo: Pixabay Sparklers are okay, but I always crave big fireworks on Independence Day. Photo: Pixabay
Sparklers are okay, but I always crave big fireworks on Independence Day.


I have high expectations for the Fourth of July, which were instilled in me before I can even remember properly by perfect celebrations at my childhood best friend’s farmor’s.

Farmor lived next door to them in a beautiful house on a lily-pad-choked pond almost entirely encircled by houses in Seattle’s north end. Together with my friend’s three siblings, I spent many a summer day in that pond called a lake, swimming and diving off farmor’s dock and even fishing, but for some reason the Fourth was special. I suspect that reason was FIREWORKS.

Back then there was no ban on setting off fireworks (not that our ban has slowed the practice down much anyway), and most of the adults at farmor’s party would have spent ridiculous sums of money at area Indian reservations. We were always well supplied. Add to that the fact that at least half the other houses surrounding the pond had done the same thing, and it made for a pretty spectacular display. No one ever lost a finger at these parties, and we kids got to stay up late. What more could you want?

As an adult, I find it’s hard to re-capture the magic of the holiday. Without a reliable plan it tends to sneak up on me, and I end up doing something so non-memorable that I honestly can’t recall more than one Fourth of July in recent years. There are never enough fireworks! Bummer.

One year I spent the summer backpacking in Europe, and on the Fourth of July I was staying at a shady hostel in Rome—some guy’s apartment that he’d crammed bunk beds into, that was the only bed I could find that night. I asked the guy if he knew where folks would be celebrating the American holiday and he offered to take a bunch of us. So off we went, but for some reason no one but the guy remembered to bring the hostel key. When we weary travelers wished to return home before the hostel guy did, he became the hostile guy. Were we feeling independent? Not so much. Needless to say, the Roman Fourth of July wasn’t the party I was looking for.

Ten days later I found myself in La Rochelle, France, on Bastille Day. As a parade passed by with marching bands and red, white, and blue flags, I felt patriotic stirrings and reflected on how easy it is to tug on those particular heart strings.

What is Independence Day? Like all holidays, it probably ought to mean more to us than explosions and potato salad. But I’m not convinced it has to be a celebration of our violent separation from England either, or a day to pat ourselves on the back for living in this bizarre and arrogant upstart of a country (which, don’t get me wrong, I love—for all our problems America has many fine qualities too). For me, though, the holiday is a more personal one.

In the excellent movie Smoke Signals (based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie), a father asks his son on July Fourth, “Are you feeling independent today?” Since that year in Rome I’ve taken this as my Independence Day mantra. Can I take care of myself? Am I doing what I want to do? Have I, at the very least, remembered my house keys? It’s nice to check in on these things from time to time.

Whatever Independence Day means to you (alien invasion? I hear they’re making a sequel to the movie by that name), I wish you a happy one. With fireworks.


This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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