Friday, January 4, 2008

White Elephants

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am definitely not a party girl. I'm not a big fan of large groups of people, especially large groups of people who believe that the only way to socialize is in a state of inebriation. So was the way that I spent this evening - not under the influence myself, but in the midst of many who were. Generally speaking, I like all the people who were at the party. It was happening in honor of some friends who moved away but were in town for a visit. I also am not a fan of party games and that too was a part of the night's festivities. We were all asked to bring a white elephant gift.

What is the best approach to selecting a white elephant gift? I have been involved in this kind of gift exchange before where, in some cases, the gifts are pretty nice and at other times they are perfectly ridiculous. Personally, I like to fall somewhere in the middle of the two. Because the guests at tonight's event were both teenagers and adults, the gifts had to be appropriate for either - no bottles of wine. Although, this would have been the most coveted gift of many of the adults. Because my 15 year old was one of the party-goers, I tried to be sensitise to appropriateness. I actually put some serious thought into what I would take and what Erin might consider taking.

I finally decided that I would make a hat. Yesterday afternoon, I headed to the stash bin and found some washable yarn that was an acceptable color for both male and female (red with blue and yellow specks) and set to work knitting. At two this afternoon, it was finished.

The guests of honor at the party have moved from Texas to Michigan; hats are needed there. One of the teenagers is attending college in Minnesota; she too can use a hat. For those living in Texas, a hat was necessary yesterday, though it is supposed to be near 80 this weekend. As is the case with Texas weather, everything can change on a dime and it could be freezing again next week. A hand knit hat was a good gift don't you think? Erin took the collectors edition of 10 Pez candy dispensers of the Disney princesses. How appropriate was that for the Cinderella wanna' be?

Other gifts that people brought included various games and puzzles, gift cards to Starbucks and Target, calendars, a candle, and a small refrigerator that plugs into your car lighter. For the most part, nice stuff. What did I get you ask? A felt parrot. Yes, a felt parrot. It looks like one of those things you find in a Mexican market for a quarter, maybe a dime if your Spanish is good enough to bargain with the vendor. As the wrapping paper fell to the floor and the colorful felt bird lay in my hands, I thought, "What am I supposed to say about this?" The game was over for me. I was confident that no one would steal my prize possession and afford me the opportunity to choose another package. I could have taken a gift from someone else rather than choosing a wrapped package, but I don't like to do that. Though in this case, it would have been the better choice.

So, here I sit with my felt parrot. Others are drinking Starbucks coffee and enjoying some crossword puzzles. Trying to get a grasp on this whole white elephant thing, I decided to do some research to see if I could find the real meaning behind this kind of game. Like any scholar, I turned to Wikipedia. This is the entry for white elephant.

A white elephant is a supposedly valuable possession whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its usefulness, and it is therefore a liability. The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by traditional Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and still is regarded, in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch was ruling with justice and the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity The tradition derives from tales in the scriptures which associate a white elephant with the birth of Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a “gift” of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because of the animal’s sacred nature and a curse because the animal could be put to no practical use.

It seems to me that the modern day interpretation of white elephant gift exchanges has come to focus primarily on the "no practical use" aspect. There is definitely no practical use for a felt parrot. What about the sacred nature of the gift? Doesn't that mean that there should be some meaning attached to the gift? I don't expect that anyone will wrap the family jewels for such a party game, but there has to be some happy median.

I am not sure that the person who received the hat was thrilled by their gift, but at least it is useful though I guess technically this breaks the rules of the game. Erin's Pez dispensers, absolutely nothing but impractical, were one of the most popular gifts. They were stolen by three people and were eventually frozen, much to the dismay of several others who wanted them.

Maybe I take these things too seriously. Maybe I should have had some wine or a few Cosmopolitans. The whole thing may have looked a little better to me with a little change of perspective.