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:
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.