Gifts from enemies are no gifts, and bring no good. 

SOPHOCLES (496-406 bc)


Happy Birthday, Mr President

Under Secret Service rules, any gift of food or drink, as well as 'combustible items which may release fumes, and colognes and other substances that are applied to the skin', are destroyed on receipt, to protect the President from harm. Astonishingly, this does not stop foreign governments bombarding him with precisely such gifts.

By law, the White House publishes an annual list of gifts given to the President by foreigners. In 2007, George W. Bush received, amongst other useless presents, a £150 box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates from Gordon Brown, a tin of chocolates and fruits which cost £650 from the Qatari Prime Minister, an 'assortment of nut pasties' from the Iraqi president, and £3 worth of live shamrocks from Bertie Ahern, to mark St Patrick’s Day. All of these gifts were destroyed.

It’s surely inconceivable that Downing Street didn't know that its gift would be destroyed. We wrote to the Number Ten press office asking whose responsibility it is to choose and procure gifts of this nature on the PM’s behalf, and under what criteria they are chosen. We did not receive a reply.

However, on Gordon Brown’s first visit to President Obama he took an (inedible) ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slaver HMS Gannet. He received in return 25 DVDs of classic American films; it was speculated that they might have been Region One and unplayable in the UK, but we have no reason to believe that was actually the case.

In Romano-British times, 'votive offerings' left at shrines to various gods were often fake coins made of base metal with a thin layer of gold plating, presumably on the basis that it’s the thought that counts. 


They gave it me… for an un-birthday present.

The ancient Chinese called tea 'the gift of Heaven'.

Insect Cheapskates

In many species of animal (including, arguably, our own), males must give females a 'nuptial gift' before mating. Often the gift’s purpose is to distract the female, who would otherwise eat the male.

In many species of dance fly (or Empididae; there are over 700 species in North America), the male catches an insect and presents it to the female. While she’s busy eating it, he mates with her. Sometimes the gift is wrapped in silk, or in a balloon formed from the male’s anal secretions. Curiously enough, the males with the largest gifts don’t always appear to be the most successful at mating, perhaps because their flight is hampered by the gift.

However, one species of dance fly (Rhamphomyia sulcata, or perhaps the balloon fly Hilara sartor) captures an insect, sucks out all its innards, then wraps the empty shell in silk. By the time the female has unwrapped her present - and found that, as it were, the box of chocolates is empty - he’s finished mating, and scarpered. He has successfully mated and had a meal.
A male hangingfly will also give his mate an insect - but when he’s finished mating, if she hasn't finished eating, he snatches the rest back from her. If there’s only a little bit left, he’ll eat it himself. If there’s plenty, he’ll offer it to another female. The size of the nuptial gift in this species decides the length of copulation – in return for a gift the size of a housefly, he gets 20 minutes. For the least impressive gift, he might get less than the minimum five minutes necessary for insemination.

Some male hangingflies pretend to be females (males and females look alike). A male impostor approaches another male and lowers his wings, which is the cue given by females for males to present their gifts. The other male will then give them the gift, which they then nick. The evolutionary advantage to this is that they can then spend less time hunting and more time mating.

Queen Victoria was given a giant wheel of cheddar cheese weighing over 1,000lb as a wedding gift.

Goody Bags

Guests at the 2008 Oscars received goody bags worth an estimated £57,000. The contents included: a £15,000 holiday, an espresso machine, a cashmere blanket worth £855 and a white gold, pearl and diamond pendant worth £740.
In the US, such gifts are taxable; it’s estimated that guests at the 2006 Oscars would have paid an extra $35,000 in taxes. Other Oscar night goody bags have included a steakhouse dinner for 10 plus a set of steak knives, a mattress (any size), a soya candle, a set of jewel-encrusted ladies' lingerie, a teeth-whitening session, and 'the use of a luxury car'.

The Royals give presents to each other on Christmas Eve. This is a German tradition.

If offered a gift in Ethiopia, accept it with both hands. To do so with one hand is considered extremely rude.

HENRY REED (1914-86)

If one doesn't get birthday presents it can remobilise very painfully the persecutory anxiety which usually follows birth.

The male burrowing owl has a tempting gift to bring to his mate while she is underground incubating the eggs: fresh dung.