In most everyone’s attic or storage space lurks a box. Inside this box is a ball of impenetrably knotted strings of LED Christmas tree lights, the green electrical cords folding in on themselves. Even after untangling it, you still might find you have too few strings for your tree, or possibly way too many.

According to Real Simple, there’s an easy way to calculate how much string lighting is needed for any size Christmas tree. You’ll get a bright, colorful look by adding one strand per foot of tree. (Bulb count can vary by brand, but many strands have around 150 lights.) If you have a typical 6-foot tree, you’d want six strands for coverage, with two additional strands on standby to fill any gaps.

If you prefer a tree that’s more densely populated with light, you don’t necessarily need to add more strands—just buy some with more bulbs per strand.

To decorate a tree, start the first strand nearest a wall outlet and encircle the trunk. You can secure lights on lighter branches with floral wire. After the holidays, you can use twist ties to store the lights in some semblance of order. That way, you'll always have the right amount of lighting—tangle-free.

In New England, it’s often called a "Yankee Swap." In the South, it’s "Dirty Santa." But across most of North America, the party game where participants trade (and steal) presents is known as a white elephant gift exchange.

The term white elephant has been used since at least the 1800s to refer to a less-than-desirable gift. “According to legend, the tradition of white elephant gifts began long ago when the King of Siam—now Thailand—gave an actual white elephant to anyone he disliked,” Evan Mendelsohn, co-founder of holiday apparel company Tipsy Elves, tells Mental Floss. “These rare elephants were quite expensive to care for. The white elephant was also a respected symbol in Thai and Buddhist cultures, so you couldn’t get away with regifting it or putting it to work.”

According to an 1873 article from The New York Times, the white elephant—impossible to get rid of, but too expensive to maintain—would be an enormous financial burden, impoverishing the recipient.



But the legend has no basis in fact, writes Ross Bullen, a professor of liberal arts at Toronto’s OCAD University [PDF]. He quotes the Thai historian Rita Ringis: “[N]o Siamese monarch ever considered white elephants ‘burdensome’ nor gave them away." In Buddhist tradition, white elephants were a sign of status and good fortune.

The notion of “swap parties” started picking up steam around 1901, when Kentucky’s Hartford Herald published an article describing a gift exchange with “four or five little bundles, wrapped so that no one else can suspect the contents.” Early descriptions of swap parties recommended that players bring the most absurd gifts possible, finishing the game by handing out prizes for “best bargain” and “worst bargain” (the recipient of the worst gift would be required to tell a story, sing a song, or otherwise entertain the group).

The term white elephant party first appeared in a joke published in 1907 in Nebraska's The Columbus Journal, according to blogger Peter Jensen Brown. “A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns,” the joke begins. “One of the popular society women announced a ‘white elephant party.’ Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet too good to throw away ... Nine out of the 11 women invited brought their husbands.”

The white elephant joke was later published in newspapers all across the United States—the 1907 equivalent of going viral. In 1908, society pages in newspapers started publishing notices for actual white elephant parties, where attendees were encouraged to make gifts of objects they wanted to get rid of.

White elephant gift exchanges have remained relatively unchanged since then, although rules differ from place to place. Want to host your own white elephant party? Find the rules at the official white elephant website, and check out our list of fun gift ideas.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

While there’s no better feeling than giving gifts, wrapping them is another matter entirely. Bunched-up paper can collect on the sides, tape can tear the wrap, and awkwardly sized items can defy easy obfuscation. It's no wonder people often turn to professional gift-wrapping services or how-to videos. It's enough to elicit a wealth of very unseasonal expletives.

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If you have a lot of presents to wrap, time is also of the essence. Fortunately, there’s a way to make this process nearly automated with a technique that purportedly originated in Japanese department stores.

The video above explains it all: You’ll cut out a square of wrapping paper so each side overlaps the item by two inches vertically and the top and bottom have enough paper coverage. Then you’ll position the gift diagonally in one corner. After flipping up two of the corners, you’ll have an immaculately-wrapped gift that’s tucked into the folded paper like a letter in an envelope.

If you really want to impress family this season with your superior wrapping technique, opt for matte scotch tape—it basically disappears into the paper. And while cheap wrapping paper makes a lot of economic sense—it will, after all, wind up shredded in a corner—it will tear easily during the wrapping process. Try to opt for slightly thicker paper to keep gifts intact until the unwrapping frenzy begins.

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