The Wit's Guide to Gifts
Or, you shouldn't have
Every gift is a Macguffin. Whatever’s in the box ought to cast a golden light upon the opener’s face; the exact identity of the item is irrelevant.
The term comes from scriptwriting, where it describes an object that moves the plot — the Maltese Falcon, Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, the Holy Grail, the Infinity Gauntlet, the silver 18th-century cow creamer. Who among us can forget the drama that ensued as Jonathan Franzen’s characters scrambled to get their hands on the titular Corrections?
So maybe the mall-bound hordes frantically rushing to find exactly the right whatsit are actually looking for the Macguffin in the greatest story ever told.
“It must be what I believe is known as a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.”
— Dorothy Parker
A gift, in German, is poison. Don’t give that. And don’t use the word gift as a verb. You can, however, embrace the punning opportunity contained in the word “present,” used to best effect here:
“Many a person will forget the past for a present.”
— Gladys Parker
Do consider where many gifts end up: The fulskåp, defined in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a cupboard full of gifts you can’t stand to look at, and which are impossible to regift. Usually these are presents from distant aunts and uncles that you put on display when the giver comes to visit.”
The perfect gift for the person who has everything is either penicillin or a burglar alarm, as the old jokes have it. So there’s always the option of deliberately flubbing the gesture with a gag gift, which is what the British royal family reportedly does. Prince Harry once delighted the Queen with a shower cap that read “Ain’t life a bitch.”
“We all know that gift-giving is aggressive, and can observe it in the custom whereby heads of state, who cordially loathe each other, nevertheless present each other with idiotic ornaments.”
— Bruce Chatwin
If you can’t give the perfect thing, at least make the imperfect thing short lived. In Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit makes a compelling case for handing someone the severed reproductive organs of a plant:
“It may be the very uselessness of cut flowers, beyond the pleasure they give, that has made them a superlative gift, embodying the generosity and anti-utilitarianism of gift-giving.”
— Rebecca Solnit
On a similarly generative theme, David Stuart shared this best worst gift idea as an aside in his biography of Ogden Nash:
The great tenor Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli, the baritone, were appearing that season. One night in a poker game Caruso played Martinelli what the latter thought was a dirty trick. The next night they appeared together in Il Trovatore. At one point just before a Caruso aria, the staging called for the two to clasp hands. They did, and then Martinelli withdrew, leaving the stage to Caruso for his usual triumph. He also left a raw egg in the tenor’s hand. Tights. No pockets. No statuary or cornices or any place to deposit the gift. Caruso had to sing through his great number, egg in hand, something of an obstacle to his usual grandiloquent gestures.
In his history of debt, the anthropologist David Graeber wrote of gifts as an ancient way to create a continual, binding indebtedness to one another. We’re always connected because we never settle up. Which I’ll take as an excuse to keep giving you borrowed lines like this one:
“To be apt in quotation is a splendid and dangerous gift. Splendid, because it ornaments a man’s speech with other men’s jewels; dangerous, for the same reason.”
— Robertson Davies
“Some people have a knack of putting upon you gifts of no real value, to engage you to substantial gratitude. We thank them for nothing.”
— Charles Lamb
Really, the pleasure is all mine. Shall we continue the Decembery themes of good cheer and conviviality, or go darker?
Get Wit Quick No. 179 is why I never shake hands on stage. No fulskåp is complete without several prominently displayed copies of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. The thought of tapping the ❤️ below counts, but not quite as much as the action.
In this time of overwhelming consumerism, this post was especially refreshing! Thank you!