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The best white elephant gift ideas for 2023

They're a bit more complex than gag gifts.

The best white elephant gift ideas for 2023

Whether or not you’ve heard of a white elephant gift exchange before, there’s a good chance you have the wrong idea of what it is, how it actually works and where the idea came from. According to legend, the King of Siam would give a white elephant to courtiers who had upset them. It was a far more devious punishment than simply having them executed. The recipient had no choice but to simply thank the king for such an opulent gift, knowing that they likely could not afford the upkeep for such an animal. It would inevitably lead them to financial ruin.

This story is almost certainly untrue, but it has led to a modern holiday staple: the white elephant gift exchange. Picking the right white elephant gift means walking a fine line: the goal isn’t to just buy something terrible and force someone to take it home with them. Rather, it should be just useful or amusing enough that it won’t immediately get tossed into the trash. The recipient also shouldn’t be able to just throw it in a junk drawer and forget about it. So here are a few suggestions that will not only get you a few chuckles, but will also make the recipient feel (slightly) burdened.

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If the goal of a White Elephant gift is to be a form of low-key torture, then the Clocky Alarm Clock on Wheels might be the greatest White Elephant gift of all time. (Well, except for those weirdos who wake up at 4:30 AM every day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.) It’s an alarm clock that, if your giftee tries to hit the snooze button, runs away from them continuing to beep, telling them in no uncertain terms it’s time to get up. And every morning, they’ll stumble out of bed drowsily cursing your name. – Terrence O’Brien, Managing Editor

$36 at Amazon
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$40 at Sharper Image

The best white elephant gifts are the ones that create a bit of intrigue as soon as they enter the gift pile. And a full-size, 4.3-pound firelog wrapped in holiday paper is impossible not to notice. It will almost certainly dwarf every other gift that’s up for grabs, and will prompt endless questions and speculation about what could be in the weird, surprisingly heavy box.

The fact that the comically-large box holds a KFC fried chicken-scented firelog makes the whole gag even more amusing. I have a gas fireplace at home, so I, sadly, have no idea what the KFC 11 Herbs and Spices firelog actually smells like. Many online reviews claim it smells “exactly” like the inside of a KFC. Whether that’s appealing to you or not probably depends on your affinity for the Colonel. But I cannot think of a more delightful gift to bestow on someone who just really wanted to see what was inside the big, heavy box. — Karissa Bell, Senior Reporter

$34 at Amazon

We’ve all encountered those moments when the USB cord they’re trying to use is just a bit too short. So give a truly useful gift: a USB cord that will be able to reach anything, anywhere and still probably have a few (tens) of feet to spare. Where will the recipient store this absolutely monstrous 75-foot USB cable when not in use? Who knows. Not your problem. – T.O.

$49 at Amazon

The Banana Phone is exactly what you’d expect it to be — a banana that’s also a phone. It might not have a SIM card or a service plan attached to it, but your giftee can pair it with their smartphone via Bluetooth so they can ditch that tired, $1,000+ handset and start taking calls the right way — with a piece of fruit. In addition to taking and making calls, they can also use the Banana Phone with the Google Assistant and Siri, to ask about the weather or tell it to “Play Cruel Summer by Bananarama.” Yes, the Banana Phone also works as a Bluetooth speaker and has a 30-foot range, so it can play tunes whenever they’re not using it to conduct official business. — Valentina Palladino, Senior Commerce Editor

$50 at Amazon

Who doesn’t want their living room to look like a galaxy far, far away? Your giftee might have to battle their young children (or others in your gift exchange) for this galaxy projector, which shines different light effects up onto the ceiling with adjustable brightness and speed. They can use it to achieve the perfect vibe for their next Star Wars binge watch party, or to soothingly usher themselves to sleep on a nightly basis. In addition to an included remote and a companion app, the projector has a timer too so they can set it to turn off just as they fall asleep. The mobile app will let them customize all aspects of their personal space field, from its nebula and twinkling effects, to the swirling colors, to the music that they pair with it (yes, there’s a speaker built in as well). Forget those boring old smart light bulbs — this galaxy projector is the smart device that will level-up anyone’s home environment. — V.P.

$20 at Amazon
msraynsford / Etsy

What makes this such an excellent White Elephant gift is right there in the name: Useless Machine. There are tons of variants of this little box, including many DIY kits. Personally I like this one which comes in two different DIY versions, plus the option to come fully assembled. And the laser cut wood is kind of nice looking. On the outside is a simple switch labeled on and off. When someone flicks the switch on, the box opens and out comes a little lever that flips the switch back off. That’s it. That’s all it does. It scores pretty high marks for its WTF factor. – T.O.

$33 at Etsy

Is there really any point to sushi or noodle night if you’re not consuming your food with utensils protected by The Force? No. The answer is no. These lightsaber chopsticks glow in different colors with just the press of a button and come with included batteries so your giftee can get right to protecting their plates from the forces of evil. Sure, they will be a hit among Star Wars fanatics, but anyone can find joy in a pair of extra-powerful chopsticks with which to have impromptu “food fights” in between bites of sashimi. — V.P.

$10 at Amazon

IRL weapons are lame — unless the ammunition is sugar-based. The MMX Marshmallow Crossbow fires “slightly dry” marshmallows up to 60 feet, so think of this as a much tastier version of a Nerf gun. Just imagine: one person with this crossbow and a bag of Jet Puffed can deliver sugar bombs to everyone in the room without ever getting off the couch. If that’s not a storybook holiday scenario, I don’t know what is. The launcher itself is preciously artisanal: made from copper, aluminum, natural rubber and North American hardwood, and each one is machined and assembled by hand. In Canada, no less. — Amy Skorheim, Commerce Writer

$99 at MMX

Ideally, a White Elephant gift is something the recipient feels obligated to keep. But the problem is, you might not always be in a position to confirm they haven’t just chucked your incredibly thoughtful present in the trash. Well, the Long Distance Friendship Lamp checks pretty much every box on the White Elephant list. While it definitely takes up less space than a real elephant, it can’t be easily tossed in a drawer and forgotten about. It will require space either on a table, desk or bookshelf and will need access to an outlet. It doesn’t really serve any practical purpose. But, when you need to confirm your giftee hasn’t tossed it, simply tap your paired friendship lamp and theirs will light up, inviting them to confirm that yes they still are holding on to this thing and they think about you every time they see it. (Whether or not those thoughts are pleasant, is a different story.) – T.O.

$210 at Amazon

A white elephant gift exchange is a party game typically played around the holidays in which people exchange funny, impractical gifts.

A group of people each bring one wrapped gift to the white elephant gift exchange, and each gift is typically of a similar value. All gifts are then placed together and the group decides the order in which they will each claim a gift. The first person picks a white elephant gift from the pile, unwraps it and their turn ends. The following players can either decide to unwrap another gift and claim it as their own, or steal a gift from someone who has already taken a turn. The rules can vary from there, including the guidelines around how often a single item can be stolen — some say twice, max. The game ends when every person has a white elephant gift.

The term “white elephant” is said to come from the legend of the King of Siam gifting white elephants to courtiers who upset him. While it seems like a lavish gift on its face, the belief is that the courtiers would be ruined by the animal’s upkeep costs.