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What is a White Elephant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 October 2016
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A white elephant is something that is costly to maintain and difficult to get rid of, although it is typically also rare and very valuable, complicating the situation for their owners. Any number of things can be referred to by this term, from a palatial home to an extravagant necklace. The word has even inspired a form of gift exchange in which people attempt to get rid of their white elephants by finding other people who might want them.

According to legend, the concept of the white elephant has its roots in Southeast Asia. Historically, Southeast Asians regarded the animal as lucky, because one supposedly appeared to the mother of the Buddha right before his birth to present her with a sacred lotus flower. It represented purity and knowledge, and because these animals were very rare, the sight of one was supposed to be lucky.

Some Asian monarchs actively sought out these elephants, because owning such an animal was supposed to convey prosperity and good fortune, and to suggest that the ruler was wise and just. Since albino elephants don't exactly grow on trees, not every monarch had access to one to bless the monarchy, while others had multiple elephants to choose from.

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Supposedly, monarchs would offer gifts of the sacred white elephants to their courtiers. The elephants were exempt from work due to their sacred status, and they could not be sold, slaughtered, or given away. For their owners, the animals were extremely costly possessions, and even though they were valuable, they could be a curse more than a blessing.

In some versions of the story, kings would give them to courtiers who had fallen out of favor, with the goal of bankrupting and humiliating the recipient of the gift. In other stories, the animal was intended as a gift of genuine good will, to favored members of the court or their families. In either case, the legend of the white elephant had entered common slang, and when European explorers entered the region, they were introduced to the concept.

One of the most classic examples of the modern version is a large country home. Such homes are typically extremely costly to maintain, but very difficult to sell, because potential buyers may be resistant to taking on the work and expense. In cultures where owning such a home is a sign of social status, members of a family may bankrupt themselves to keep the house going, as in the case of some English families and their stately homes. One response to this problem in some regions is the opening of private homes to periodic tours, filming, and other events, with the family using the earned income to maintain the house and grounds.

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Mykol
Post 7

Even though some might see a white elephant as lucky, I have always seen it as something I don't really want. When I am trying to come up with gift ideas for a white elephant exchange, I never give much thought to whether someone would want the item or not.

I am more interested in getting rid of it because it is something I no longer have an interest in.

sunshined
Post 6

I go to at least one white elephant gift exchange during the holiday season. It is so interesting to see the wide variety of "gifts" people bring.

Some people really do bring something that has little or no value. I think other people have a hard time doing this. I have always seen a few gifts at these exchanges that would be a nice gift to have.

I don't ever get these gifts, but get the ones where I throw it away before I even come inside the house when I get home.

Oceana
Post 5

@feasting – I know what you mean. At most white elephant parties, gag gifts are the norm these days. I've seen everything from toy reindeer that poop candy to whoopie cushions at these parties.

However, there are probably still a few rich people out there who exchange expensive items at white elephant parties. These people are not in my circle of friends, so I probably will never get to see what goes on at a genuine white elephant party. Even if I got invited, I would have nothing to offer.

feasting
Post 4

I went to a white elephant party last holiday season, and it seems that these parties have lost their original meaning. The hostess had set the price limit for the gifts at $25!

A $25 gift is hardly a white elephant. I suppose that the fact that most of the gifts were really weird and not things that most people would actually use is still in line with the definition of a white elephant, though.

cloudel
Post 3

My friend's family had a really nice beach home in Florida that had become a white elephant to them. Because of their jobs, they were only able to stay there for a couple of months out of the year, but they were responsible for paying the insurance and keeping the electricity and water on throughout the year.

They decided to rent it out to vacationers. Because of the location and the great condition of the home, they were able to get $2,000 per week when renting this out. In addition to covering the bills, this actually gave them a little bit of a profit and delivered the home out of white elephant status.

fLEXI
Post 2

@Denha - I also read the white elephant story by Hemingway. It’s interesting how the “white elephant” refers to so many things within the story, and especially the baby that the two characters have such differing views about. One of them thinks the possibility of a baby will be something really positive, while the other is thinking only about the cost and stress a baby would cause.

After reading this article, I feel like I have an even better idea of the story. It’s so interesting that white elephants are typically considered to be something with a lot of good possibilities that just can’t be taken care of properly or responsibly. It’s interesting how that really could describe the baby in the story perfectly.

Denha
Post 1

White elephants have also grown to be a term for a joke, a lie, or something in general that is strange, similar to an elephant in the room. For example, in Ernest Hemingway's story Hills like White Elephants, they compare the scenery to white elephants while also talking about something that is expensive, unwanted, and unnamed. Then, of course, there is also the term of a "white elephant gift" as being a ridiculous joke present.

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