[As it's Epiphany, and some may still be getting presents, perhaps you'll put up with one last vaguely holiday-related post, pertaining to gift-giving. To the extent that white elephant gift exchanges count.]
The seeming incongruity (not irony) of a white elephant gift exchange is that although all the items are supposed to be undesirable the participants who choose later than others can take the undesirable item that someone has already selected. While on the surface the rationale for such an action would be that the person taking the already-revealed item is too cowardly to risk unwrapping a not-yet-revealed item and discover it to be even worse than what is out there. Alternatively, it indicates that one or more of the participants don't understand the nature of the game (so to speak) and offered up gifts that were not, in fact, undesirable. However, assuming that everything available follows the spirit of the activity, there is another reason: It's fun to take away something from someone.
Certainly there is a hierarchy of sorts in such an activity, whereby certain gifts are not as undesirable as others, and the contest ultimately can be construed as seeing who ends up with the worst item; that scenario makes the taking of an opened item from someone a defensive move, especially if one is amongst the last to select (and most items have been revealed)—at least if I get that I know it won't be the worst one, the taker may subconsciously think.
That is a subconscious thought that seems justifiable; it's just "playing the game" to a great extent. However, it avoids the delightfully evil aspect of the act. Perhaps only unconsciously one must accept that it's one of the few situations in life where being a complete asshole is perfectly acceptable. Picking a gift that is still wrapped may indicate the one choosing has a more hopeful streak than one who takes what someone else already picked, but it's also boring. There's so many times in life when a considerate person sees jerks who don't give a crap about anyone get away with their behavior and has no recourse but to accept it. And yes, it's psychologically advanced to be of a mindset whereby seeing the inconsiderate suffer no consequences causes one no distress (but that's also the sort of mindset that would not construe any gift to be undesirable and therefore belongs to one unsuited for the exchange in the first place), but that's not a state I suspect many of us have truly achieved (much as we may like to think we have).
It's petty and stupid but damned if there isn't some satisfaction from making another suffer in a tiny, ultimately insignificant way.
Let's face it: Much as we may like to believe there is justice in the universe, we so rarely see evidence of it. We fancy the notion that those inconsiderate jerks who've wronged us got their comeuppance eventually, but we didn't witness it if it came, so there was no catharsis. But to be that jerk, for just a moment, in a situation where the person we "wrong" ultimately won't give a crap, may allow for a tiny bit of venting (sort of).
Unless of course we just choose a still-wrapped gift and take our chances with whatever that ends up being. There is that option as well.
At the department's holiday party gift exchange last month, there were definitely a few moments where a gift was "stolen" from someone and done so with glee. In a few cases, a steal caused a chain-reaction of "theft," where the person who just had their crappy gift stolen turned and stole someone else's crappy gift, and that person then stole someone else's crappy gift, continuing until someone who didn't give a crap picked a still-wrapped item. It was a fascinating study in sociology, if viewed from the correct perspective.
The things humans will do.
When my turn came around, I grabbed the gift from one of the guys who happened to be standing near me. It was a "Bendy Pirate"—which is pretty much what the name suggests (a plastic stick-like figure whose body and limbs bend and who was decorated with ostensible pirate paraphernalia, including a removable peg leg—really). After a few others' turns the curving corsair was stolen from me, and having already achieved my catharsis from the initial steal, and because the game had been going on for over 30 people's worth of turns, I just grabbed the smallest wrapped box from the spot by the tree where the remaining gifts were.
I opened it. It proved to be a package of Gas-X. For infants.
Yes, baby medicine. It wasn't some clever appropriation of the packaging with something else inside. It was exactly what the package indicated.
Not surprisingly, that proved to be something that was not stolen by those with remaining turns or by those whose gifts were stolen during those turns.
While it is not uncommon for the items offered up by the participants to be re-gifted crap from the previous year, and frankly the standards for what is acceptable are pretty low, I cannot imagine next year I'll be re-gifting that.
Baby medicine is almost ridiculously tacky, but opened, year-old baby medicine crosses a line.
Even if I knew someone with an infant child (who might actually have use for it), I don't think I'd be comfortable giving it away now. The explanation of why I had it would be more trouble than it would be worth.
And for the record, for the fifth year in a row, no one participating in the exchange brought an elephant, white or other color.
[Astute readers may recall I've written about this gift exchange previously. Yes. It's a never-ending source of inspiration. Well, once a year.]