Why a Padded Toilet Seat is a Bad Christmas Gift

The giving of presents at Christmas predates the three wise men of biblical fame by at least two hundred years.  However the modern practice, which comes with an expectation of a quid pro quo is something very different as the exchange of items of similar value amounts to little more than trading.  A true gift can only be given as part of a non-reciprocal arrangement, like the one between a parent and a young child, an important distinction since the original meaning behind the Christmas holiday was to create a celebration of charity.

To be perfectly honest I don’t specifically remember any of the toys I received for Christmas.  I doubt my own kids can remember when they came to possess their current assortment of playthings.  What I do remember are the really bad gifts, like the year I got three copies of Mastermind or the time my sisters – born seven years apart – were expected to share both halves of the same track suit.  As an adult gift giving is fraught with peril and the memory of a poor gift will haunt you for many a Christmas future.  Thus it is important for those among us who don’t have shopping as our primary avocation to know what constitutes a substandard present and what makes a truly great gift.

The old cliche “it’s the thought that counts” I believe gives people the wrong idea.  It implies that the clever but perfunctory gift from the professional shopper is more worthy than the trite token from the genuinely thoughtful person who is cursed with a stunning lack of imagination.  The real difference between the gifts remembered for all the right and wrong reasons comes down to something called opportunity cost.

My father one year gave my mother a padded toilet set as a Christmas present.  While it can superficially be attributed to parsimony it is closer to the truth to say he never wanted to feel like he was wasting something, a trait he inherited from his depression era parents who kept among other things a bucket of bent rusted nails.  His gifts had to be practical which by itself wasn’t the problem.   One year I gave my girlfriend (now wife) such mundane items as a towel, deodorant and a full set of clothes.  However they were wrapped and arranged in order so she had everything she needed for that day from the moment she stepped out of the shower on Christmas morning.  My father though ran into trouble because there was often a direct benefit for himself with his gifts.  This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.  As of this moment I am writing this essay on a laptop I bought my wife as a gift.  However at the time I made sure to get specifications tailored to her needs, I bought software just for her and I made it clear that its primary use was for her morning commute.  You can’t argue that a padded toilet is for one specific person and thus it isn’t really a gift at all.

Opportunity cost itself is a fascinating concept and it is basis of my all-time favourite Christmas movie; It’s a Wonderful Life.   The film examines the relationship between the choices we make in our own lives and the effect this has on the people around us.  While many of the incidents in the story, like saving his brother from drowning, are completely random, passing on college to run his fathers company is the kind of choice everyone has to make.  After watching this movie it is instinctive to think about what the world would be like if we were never born.  However since most of us lacking the selfless nature of the George Bailey character or the contrived situations of the story will feel like we come up short.

The truth is that the big events in our lives, like those in the story are almost entirely determined by chance.  The lives of my two future children once rested upon a tiny piece of paper that floated around in the bottom of a purse for two months.  A former co-worker, who was an insignificant person in my life, had received my future wife’s application for employment and had forgot to call her in for an interview.  Yet a small moment, like the infamous padded toilet seat can have just as big of an impact.  It certainly changed the way I looked at giving gifts and eventually the message got through to my father.

My wife and I first started dating a couple weeks before the Christmas of 1996.  That was also the year my father decided to give me his car as a gift.  I think this qualifies as a great gift, not because of the cost of the vehicle as I don’t think that the money really mattered to him.  The real gift to me was that my father, who generally dislikes travel, drove over 4000km in the middle of winter to deliver it himself.  The secret of a great gift is giving something of value to you, to a specific person, with no expectation of getting something of equal value in return.

2010 has been a particularly difficult year for me financially.  I don’t have what I would consider a great gift for anybody.   What I do have though is the greatest gift.  The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story that is in fact called The Greatest Gift. It is a gift I have both received and I have given out.  It is simply the gift of life and like most of my childhood Christmases my mother did most of the hard work and my father takes most of the blame.  8^)


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Billy Crowe on December 25, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Great writing David, you missed your calling. You could be and should be a reporter writing a column in a newspaper. By the way, doesn’t a toilet seat warm the cockles of your heart!



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