If you think it's hard choosing the right necktie for Dad, just give thanks you never had to shop for the emperor of China. In 1793, Britain's Earl McCartney faced that very problem. Eager to persuade Emperor Ch'ien Lung to grant trading rights to England, McCartney scrupulously obeyed the protocol expected of a foreign visitor: a deep kowtow and a lavish shower of gifts.
On Sept. 14, the emperor's birthday, McCartney appeared at Ch'ien's Beijing Palace with an array of Western Europe's technological marvels. Among the gifts were mathematical and navigational instruments, telescopes, microscopes and sheets of plate glass.
The emperor accepted the gifts with a bored air of noblesse oblige. "In China," he remarked to the foreign barbarian, "we already possess all things. I set no value on objects strange and ingenious, and I have no use for your country's manufactures." A disappointed McCartney returned to England without his trade agreement.
The problem of choosing an appropriate gift reaches as far into antiquity as human memory can stretch. When God preferred Abel's gift to Cain's, the first recorded case of sibling rivalry ensued, with such ferocity that people haven't stopped talking about it to this day. History is replete with lessons a wise person will heed before setting foot in a shopping mall.
Just try walking into Macy's this year and asking for an ounce or two of designer myrrh or frankincense. You might as well ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Luckily, when Salome made that request, she didn't have to climb into the lap of a ludicrously dressed man whose cheeks were like roses and nose like a cherry.
In ancient times, the most notable gift was undoubtedly the present that Prometheus bestowed on mankind. It badly misfired. And the story of Pandora is proof enough that one should never open prematurely a box labeled, "Do not open until Dec. 25." Furthermore, if somebody named Cassandra appears on your doorstep and whispers, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," believe her. Even at Scarlett Place, the average modern condominium cannot accommodate a gigantic wooden horse, and most landlords forbid tenants to keep pets anyway.
Better, perhaps, to emulate Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin gave handouts to the homeless and the unemployed, and earned a knighthood for his trouble. But to do it authentically, you'd have to live in the woods with a band of Merry Men, and that's enough to give anyone pause.
Nowadays, a safe bet is usually a book, unless the gift is going to Groucho Marx. When the humorist S. J. Perelman sent a copy of his latest book to Groucho in the early 1930s, Groucho sent a proper note of thanks. It read, "Thank you for sending me your new book. From the moment I picked it up to the moment I put it down, I was convulsed in hysterical laughter. Someday, I must read it."
Abraham Lincoln liked to tell the story about his backwoods nephew, to whom he sent a popular novel. "Thank you, uncle," the boy supposedly wrote. "It was thoughtful of you to remember my birthday, but I already own a book."
That incident is probably the product of Lincoln's wit, but this one actually happened. During the American Civil War, the king of Siam tried to put his country's war machine at Lincoln's disposal. It took a lot of diplomacy to persuade the king that his gift -- a herd of battle-seasoned elephants -- would likely prove useless at Vicksburg.
Some gifts, of course, make you wonder if the sender has the brains God gave to aluminum siding. One Christmas, his children gave Richard Nixon a surfboard decorated with psychedelic paint. Nixon, you may recall, liked to stroll on the San Clemente beach dressed in a three-piece suit and shiny wingtips. Humorist Mark Russell thought of Nixon as "the kind of guy who wanted a briefcase for his 10th birthday." Would you choose a psychedelic surfboard for a man like that?
Or a hat for President John Kennedy, who spurned headgear even during the brutal cold snap that settled over Washington for his 1961 inauguration? In his youth, Kennedy had seen a newsreel of then-President Calvin Coolidge wearing a full Indian war bonnet. With his sour, puckered face, Coolidge looked ridiculous, and the theater audience erupted in laughter. Kennedy decided on the spot never to be caught in a funny hat.
Nevertheless, when Kennedy made his ill-fated trip to Texas in 1963, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce presented him with a 10-gallon cowboy hat. The locals kept demanding he try it on. But Kennedy, his dismay visible, brushed the unwelcome gift aside by saying, "Come to Washington on Monday, and I'll put it on for you in the White House."