Happy White Elephant

We’re going to have a Christmas party with our small group this Thursday, and per tradition we’ll be having a “white elephant” exchange. An exercise in re-gifting. But where did the term “white elephant come from?

One of our small group friends, John (actually there are three John’s in our small group; we call them 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John) wrote yesterday to provide an explanation:

White Elephant
The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity.The tradition derives from tales 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 simultaneously both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favor, and a curse because the animal had to be retained and could not be put to much practical use, at least to offset the cost of maintaining it.

Now we know.

Jim Jewell

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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