There is an atrociously large gallery of more sparkly hugging animals and lots of sexy Native appropriation where this came from. You're welcome.
Inspired by a conversation in my history class last night where a discussion arose regarding the origins of the phrase “seeing the elephant” in both California gold rush and Civil War battle contexts (meaning finding out the gold rush was a sham and experiencing battle for the first time, respectively), I put my nerdgear on and went to work. I'm cross-posting this from my class' blog (it's not public) because I was so proud of the results! Anyway, so I came home and consulted my giant red 15-pound volume of Americanisms* to see if I could track down a satisfactory etymological tale. This tome identified the colloquial expression “To see the elephant, to get a sight of the elephant, to see the sights, to gain experience of life” and had a quotation from as early as 1835 (Mathews 550). While this does not clear up this specific saying’s exact origins, the volume also pointed me toward the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary to the phrase “to see the lions,” which means basically the same thing. Under definition #4 of “lion,” the OED says “a. pl. Things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing: esp. in phr. to see, or show, the lions . †In early use, to have seen the lions often meant to have had experience of life… This use of the word is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London” (emphasis added because of awesomeness). Of course, my nerd curiosity was not sated so I looked into this phenomenon further!
If someone hands you this invitation on Friday, do not try to actually go!
The OED’s earliest reference for going “to see the lions” is from 1629, but a recent(-ish) finding of lion skulls shows that lions were part of the royal menagerie kept at the Tower as early as the thirteenth century! (That link is to a fascinating article from NatGeo News including osteoarchaeology for all my fellow Bones fans out there–highly recommended.) Also, apparently inviting people to the “washing of the lions” at the Tower was a classic old-timey English April Fool’s joke long after the animals had been moved to more modern zoological parks!
*A Dictionary of Americanisms: On Historical Principles, 4th ed. Mitford M. Mathews, ed. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1966.
**And if they did, they'd do it more than once a year. SRSLY.