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Wise Men: O Baby Jesus, we bring you... a pack of cigarettes... a Diet Coke... and a sack of charcoal!—Eddie Izzard, Glorious
A gift which the giver has clearly put little time or thought into, and usually of little use/relevance to the recipient.
Alice is all ready for the office Christmas party and on the road when Bob calls to make sure she's on the way. "I sure had a hard time picking out a Secret Santa gift for Carol!" he mentions. Alice just then remembers that she drew Zachariah in the Secret Santa exchange, and never got around to buying anything. He just transferred into the department last month, Alice barely knows the guy. And it's 8 PM on December 24th, nothing's going to be open--what luck, there's a Gas-N-Go on the next exit! Now, present, present...store's nearly been picked clean! And Alice leaves the shop with a box of Twinkies™ and a gift ribbon....
There are many gift-giving events throughout the year, some of which you can dodge, and others that you really shouldn't for reasons of family tranquility, office politics or simple etiquette. But sometimes you just don't know a person you're giving a gift very well, or they're difficult to shop for, or you have no imagination, or you put it off until the very last minute. So you just grab the first thing that seems vaguely appropriate, and give that. Some "white elephant" gifts have been making the rounds for years, being regifted over and over.
Gifts that fit this trope tend to fall into one of two categories:
- The cliché gifts that "everyone" gives for certain events, such as ties for Fathers' Day, toasters for weddings, fruitcake for Christmas, etc. Often there's a scene with the recipient putting it with all the identical items from previous years/other givers.
- Gifts clearly chosen with little or no thought about what the recipient might like. This can range from quite nice but not suited to the personality (a pink frilly dress for the Tomboy) through decent but generic ("everyone's getting Enya CDs this year; they were on special") to What Were You Thinking? (dental floss.) Special bonus points if it's obviously just been picked out of the garbage or the neighbor's yard.
Monetary gifts generally don't count for this as the recipient can easily use money, unless it's obviously a last-second resort (crumpled, sticky dollar bills, say.) Likewise, gift certificates or cards are usually not this unless it's restricted to a service or store the recipient isn't likely to use. ("A $20 gift certificate to the Bouncing Baby Boutique. How nice. Have I mentioned lately that I'm childfree?")
Anime and Manga
- Zan Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, when devoting one of its Three Shorts to discussing emergency measures, had the entire class partake in this kind of gift giving for Nami's birthday.
- In Soul Eater, Maka's father wants to give her a present for passing her exams with top marks. He's actually savvy enough to realize that she'd prefer a book, but he doesn't know which ones she already has, so asks Blair, who's been living with Maka, to use his money to make the purchase. Blair gets distracted and spends the money on something she wants, naughty underwear. Remembering her actual mission too late to go back to the store, Blair simply uses her magic to shrink the undies to Maka's size. This naturally gives Maka the wrong idea about her father's intentions.
- Subverted in Future War 198X. After the President of the USA makes quite the messy nuclear error, he sends a box of cigars with a note asking for renewed friendship to Russia's leader for Christmas the next day. While they were expensive cigars, Orloff scoffs and is insulted at the "thoughtless gift", assuming that they are cheap and can be bought conveniently. He brands the president a stupid American cowboy while smoking it anyways.
- One Crazy Summer has the sister being given a tiny teddy bear as a present. This apparently isn't received well, for she promptly feeds it to her dog.
- The Sense and Sensibility movie. Mrs. Jennings wants to get something for the grieving Marianne. On the way out the door she remarks that some sweet dessert item would be nice, then comes back with "Does she like olives?"
- Note that this is from the original novel. Mrs. Jennings doesn't quite know how to console her heartbroken young friend, so she attempts to spoil her by offering tasty rich-people foods (including the olives) and insisting she take the best seat by the fire.
- In Dieu seul me voit (by Bruno Podalydès, 1998), the main character needs to buy a gift at the last moment, and grads a table lamp from the nearest store. That lamp ends up being repeatedly given around as a way for every recipient of the gift to get rid of it.
- Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, the first of the Fudge books by Judy Blume, has Peter being given a picture dictionary, more suitable for a preschooler than the preteen that he is. Ugh. At least he has enough tact to pretend to be enthused. Fudge, on the other hand, brings out their old copy of the same book.
- Robert Fulghum writes about a White Elephant gift exchange at an office party. One grouchy guy gets the proverbial piece of junk and grumbles that too many people hide behind the "good thoughts" excuse.
- Dave Barry writes that one time he saw his wife buy one of those ridiculously small decorative boxes (you know, the ones that could maybe hold a walnut, if you're lucky) without even knowing when or for whom it would be used as a present. Apparently this trope can even strike when you aren't actually shopping for a specific reason.
- The Tom Holt novel Grailblazers reveals that Santa Claus is really one of the Wise Men who gave gifts to the infant Jesus, doing community service as punishment for the fact that (unlike his colleagues, who planned ahead and brought gold, frankincense and myrrh) he left it until the last minute and couldn't come up with anything better than a pair of socks.
- The protagonist of Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma does this. Justified because Christmas isn't currently his top priority, what with his girlfriend being in a coma.
- It happens in By the Shores of Silver Lake when Mr. and Mrs. Boast show up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve. Ma gives Mr. Boast a pair of wristlets she had made for Pa and Mrs. Boast her Sunday handkerchief. The wristlets sound fine, but one hopes Ma considered the handkerchief too nice to actually use.
- The Wide Window features the second type, of the "trying, but clueless" variety. The well-meaning Aunt Josephine gives Violet a baby doll, Klaus a model train set, and Sunny a rattle, not realizing that Violet (at fourteen) is not interested in dolls, that Klaus has never liked model trains, and that Sunny finds rattles irritating.
- Swedish musician and comedian Povel Ramel mentions in his memoirs how he once did this kind of shopping on Christmas Eve in the only store he found that was still open - a pet store. Among other things, his then-girlfriend got a monkey for Christmas...
- Harry Potter Christmas gifts from the Dursley's over the years include a toothpick, a fifty-pence, and a single tissue.
- In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, after receiving an unexpected Christmas gift from Dobby, Harry scrambles to find something to give in return, in an effort to be polite and pretend he already had something as a gift. He ends up settling on an old pair of Uncle Vernon's socks, which were lying in the bottom of his trunk. In a subversion, Dobby loves them so much that Ron throws in his own Christmas socks and promises Dobby the next sweater his mother gifts to him.
- In Doomsday Book, Mr. Dunworthy notices that all the presents his friend Mary has gotten her great-nephew Colin are sweaters and the like, so he tries to get better presents... unfortunately, between it being Christmas Eve and the quarantine, the only place open is a convenience store. He does manage to buy some interesting candy and between that and a well-picked book, he gives Colin a satisfactory bunch of Christmas presents.
- Averted in the Princess Diaries series; Mia encounters this situation with her Secret Snowflake Tina, but manages to get her a last-minute gift that's both heartfelt and appropriate.
Live Action TV
- Friends loves this trope.
- In season two, Joey and Chandler get caught up before buying their gifts, and end up shopping at a gas station on Christmas Eve. Rachel gets wiper blades, even though she doesn't have a car (but they give an odorizer so she can feel inside one), Phoebe gets a package of toilet seat covers, Monica gets a box of condoms, and Ross gets two cans of pop (the last two trade each other's gifts...).
- Monica and Rachel are throwing a baby shower for Phoebe. None of the usual (cliched) gift ideas will work, since Phoebe is being a surrogate for her brother, so everybody shows up with things that Phoebe can't use until after the birth, such as leather pants and tequila. What with pregnancy mood swings, this doesn't end well.
- In one episode, Chandler and Monica agreed to make each other presents for Valentine's Day. Monica ended up giving Chandler a sock puppet Phoebe had made. Chandler gave Monica a mix tape he had lying around in his closet (and it transpired that the mix tape had been made for him by Janice for an earlier birthday).
- And on one occasion, Chandler gave the group letters saying, "A donation has been made in your name to the New York City ballet." Bad enough on their own, at least for someone who doesn't care to support the ballet, but the act earns double trope points due to the fact that he took the letters from the Christmas bonus pile at work.
- At Emma's first birthday party, Joey didn't realize they needed to bring presents. He improvises, and does a 'dramatic' reading of one of Emma's favorite books. Bonus points, as it left the entire party in tears.
- In Family Ties, Alex also did the Christmas shopping at a gas station and his family ended up getting presents like motor oil and a car air freshener.
- Seinfeld: One hundred eighty-two dollars exactly. Elaine says: "What are you, my uncle?" Earlier in the episode, Jerry told George to only spend half as much on his gift since Jerry and Elaine are back in a relationship, so George gives her ninety-one dollars.
- On Scrubs Carla tells Turk NOT to do this as a relationship test. He comes up with a nice pen, since she likes to write letters by hand. Admittedly, he grabbed it out of a box of items extracted from patients' rectums as he had zero prep time, but his heart was in the right place.
- Psych: Shawn and Gus have brought baby gifts for Da Chief (Gus' is a stuffed toy, Shawn's is a pineapple), but Lassie and Juliet haven't, and they have to find gifts at a minute's notice. Juliet gives Da Chief a box of Tic-Tacs, and Lassie brings The Club from his car.
- On one of the Monk Christmas specials, Monk's truck driver father is ordered to drive around the country by his boss and give "presents" fitting this tropes (such as dreidels and other misc objects) to orphanage children. The boss wanted to overwrite the memory of the truck's GPS by maxing out the miles it could store so it would overwrite evidence of him killing someone by shoving them into the engine. For some reason he forgot to clean the engine itself...
- It was also implied that this trope was at least one of the reasons why Monk hated all the Christmases in his life barring those during his years with Trudy. In 1964, his father gave him only one Walkie Talkie, and not a pair of walkie talkies, but literally just one walkie talkie out of a set. The stinger? He knew it was a useless gift, but gave it to him anyways because Monk doesn't have any friends anyway.
- On one episode of I Love Lucy, Ricky, thinking he's forgotten Lucy's birthday, gets a box of candy from the bedroom and gives it to her. Lucy says that it isn't her birthday (they were really talking about Ethel's), which means Ricky has to explain why he has a gift for her. Ricky confesses that the candy is an "emergency present" that he's had for three years. He even has tags for it for every occasion.
- On one episode of Wings, the gang throws an office party for Casey. Not wanting to go to any effort, Brian just takes a book off his bookshelf and gives it to her. Which he might have gotten away with, except the book turns out to be called 101 Ways to Pleasure a Woman. Roy, on the other hand, simply grabs a jar of charity money off of his counter and hands it to her as-is. (He then admits that it isn't a real charity anyway; he made it up.)
- On Three's Company, Stanley gives Helen some flowers.
Helen: Oh, they're beautiful! You even enclosed a card.
Stanley: I did?
Helen: (reads) 'To Granny, Rest in Peace'? You stole them from the cemetery!
- In A Very Supernatural Christmas Sam doesn't want to celebrate Christmas because Dean's due to die within the year thanks to a Deal with the Devil, and he thinks it will just be depressing. At the last minute they decide to celebrate anyway, and both turn out to have shopped for gifts at the local 7-11. Neither makes any fuss, though, considering they've been a little busy defeating the Monster of the Week. Flashbacks in the same episode show another example of this trope: one Christmas when Sam and Dean were kids, their dad didn't make it back for the holidays, so Dean breaks into someone's house, steals some presents, and tells Sam their dad brought them. Sam starts to get suspicious when he opens one and it turns out to be a Barbie.
- The title character of The Red Green Show tends to do this for his wife, Bernice, around Christmastime. He then tried to justify it by saying that the Sunoco logo on the free gas station mugs matched their kitchen.
- Frasier uses this a couple times, of the 'grab whatever's nearby' variety. Roz gives Frasier a book that had been hers (complete with the usual incriminating inscription), and in a later episode Niles gives Roz a broken old cheese crock with a dead bee in it.
- Subverted and lampshaded on Top Gear, since the presenters buy each other useless "presents" all the time. One of the best was a tacky golden rooster which has since become the trophy for the coveted "Golden Cock Award."
- In fairness, the presents are usually actually quite nice, and would in normal circumstances be appreciated. The joke is that they are wildly inappropriate for the situation (such as buying Richard Hammond a 3ft model galleon when he only had a small motor bike on which to transport it).
- In the first episode of Hold The Back Page, Ken Wordsworth forgets his son's birthday and so hands him the dictionary his co-workers gave him as a joke present at his farewell party earlier that day (he was journalist leaving an upmarket paper to work at a tabloid). He did this mostly so his ex-wife wouldn't realise he had forgotten, but it turns out the son quite appreciates the dictionary.
- One holiday episode of Thirtysomething had Michael, who is Jewish, acting really grumpy throughout the holiday season, mostly over differences with his gentile wife over how to celebrate their baby's first Christmas/Chanukah/whatever. At the end, when he finally caves and asks Gary to help him bring home a Christmas tree, he thanks Gary for his help and offers him a Santa Claus Pez dispenser as a Christmas present. Gary is touched but bemused; Michael then confesses that he stole the Pez dispenser off his business partner's desk at the last minute.
- The Scooby Gang on Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to avert the "thoughtless and/or impersonal" part of this trope despite the exigency of circumstances, when rushing to the airport to see Giles off. Justified in this case--he purposefully didn't tell them he was leaving to prevent a painful goodbye.
Anya: Um, we, uh, brought you some lovely parting gifts. [offering prepackaged snack pie] It's American. Get it? Apple pie? To remind you of all the good food you won't be eating.
Tara: A-and a monster. [offering little rubber finger puppet] Sort of a Sunnydale souvenir, we thought. Grr! Argh!
Giles (smiling): Thank you.
Xander: And I wanted to buy you a can of Old English 800, 'cause, you know, England, and you, and because at the time it sounded really funny. But the guy who lives in the box in front of the store, he, uh, wouldn't buy it for us.
Dawn: We got your presents at the gas station. We were kind of in a hurry.
- Played with in another episode, where Willow gives Joyce one of those beers hats while she was in the hospital. It seems like this trope, but Willow actually did put thought into picking it out...but when she actually gives it, admits that in hindsight she doesn't understand why it seemed like a good idea.
- Subverted in one episode of The King of Queens, where Doug and Carrie think another couple has given them this kind of gift (a gravy boat) for their wedding. Turns out it had a check for a few thousand dollars inside, but by the time they finally discover this, the check has long since expired and they can't cash it.
- In the Corner Gas episode "Road Worthy," Oscar tells Wanda that he can't decide on a gift for Emma, to which she says, "Well, coming to the gas station was a great start. There's motor oil, antifreeze, two-liter bottles of pop ..." Oscar says that Emma likes pop, but Wanda tells him, "Don't get her pop."
- On That 70s Show, in a case of Forgotten Birthday, Red and Eric buy Kitty a few balloons and a funnel from the gas station at 11:40 P.M. She is somewhat unimpressed, and they have to take her square dancing to make up for it.
- In the My Name Is Earl episode "White Lie Christmas," Earl is remembering how he never gave Joy any good gifts. His past presents included keys (they were Joy's already) and condoms (they were flavored!)
- One Mad TV sketch has a couple forgetting to get Christmas presents for their children, forcing them to scrounge through their closet and bathroom. The kids received toothbrushes, used aftershave, high-heeled shoes and a tie.
- On Murphy Brown, the characters had agreed not to exchange gifts at Christmas, but of course someone broke this promise, and so everyone rushed out late on Christmas Eve to get something at the last minute.
- Roswell: Michael tries to buy his on-off girlfriend Maria a Ladyshave for Christmas, and actually does buy her a car bumper. Luckily, Isabel knows how terrible he is at presents, and got Maria a lovely set of earrings in his name.
- In Owl City's "Peppermint Winter":
I rip off the wrapping and tear through the box
'Til I end up with forty-five new pairs of socks!
However, he sounds overjoyed about it.
- Tom Lehrer isn't really a fan of this trope. From his Christmas Carol:
Relations, sparing no expense'll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
"Just the thing I need! How nice!"
- A Zits strip has Jeremy and Sarah exchanging gifts for Christmas, but Sarah forgot. She quickly grabs the first thing she sees, wraps it and gives it to Jeremy. Cut to Jeremy and Hector examining the very loud, wide necktie:
Jeremy: What do you think she's trying to say?
Hector: I heart geeks?
- A second strips has Jeremy's dad invoking the trope by walking up to Connie one early morning, kissing and wishing her a happy Mother's Day. Cue Jeremy panicking and dashing out to grab a gift. Turns out Dad was just messing with him.
- FoxTrot has a running joke relating to this trope, although it is not strictly limited to Christmas as much as really any gift-giving holiday such as Mothers Day or Valentines Day. ("Ever wonder why none of our kids have birthdays in November?")
- Dogbert's Clues for the Clueless shows how to torment friends by giving them home-made gifts and how to treat people who give bad gifts.
Stand Up Comedy
- The page quote from Eddie Izzard's skit on the Nativity. Jesus was delighted with his birthday presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but when he asks "...and for my Christmas presents?" they're stumped. Of course, since it's Christmas Day, the only shop that's open is the 24-hour petrol station...
- In Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, Rose makes her entrance carrying a basket of gifts, which she lists:
"Lo, here is some peppermint rock for old gaffer Gadderby, a set of false teeth for pretty little Ruth Rowbottom, and a pound of snuff for the poor orphan girl on the hill."
- Pv P's Christmas Special involves Francis getting a last minute Secret Santa gift at the gas station across the street.
- Sluggy Freelance Torg and Riff tend to give each other a beer. They expect this.
- Parodied in Peachi's Persona 4 comic (seen above). Dojima gives Nanako a gift for Children's Day, which turns out to be a T-shirt clearly labeled "baby boy". Nanako tries to not sound disappointed, all while Dojima says it was on sale. Poor Nanako.
- A Gag Dub of one Dirty Pair episode in which Yuri almost gets married had all the wedding guests reveal that they'd given the happy couple toasters. The Mad Scientist at least gave them a toaster that shoots laser beams.
- In the Homestar Runner cartoon "Homestar Presents: Presents", Homestar accidentally forgets to do his
ChristmasDecemberween shopping until it's 10 PM on Decemberween, and ends up getting a bunch of Bubs' old "Aught-Four Crap" for everyone.
Strong Bad: Foolish Homestar. Decemberween is not about getting people presents. It's about getting people good presents! Good presents!! Not this last-minute discount crap you're trying to foist on us!
- Somewhat subverted, since Marzipan actually liked her gift. (Wire clippers were perfect for freeing those baby seals!)
- Not to mention the Strong Bad Email "what i want", in which Strong Bad and (of all people) Marzipan sarcastically shill bad gift ideas on a mock home-shopping channel, like ornaments ("There's nothing like opening a gift just in time to put it in a box in the attic for a year.") and singing-and-dancing toy "no-bots" ("These things just scream 'I stopped at the drugstore on the way over.'")
- This list of 11 most retarded "generic" gifts one can get.
- In the Commodore HUSTLE episode "Santa Secrets", Morgan starts off by telling everyone that he doesn't plan to spend more than $5 on a gift. In the end, everyone ends up at a total loss for what to buy everyone else, so everyone, except Graham and James, gets Magic: The Gathering cards - even Paul, who doesn't play. Graham gets a man-sized stuffed Grim Reaper that terrifies him, and James gets a $2 bag of tokens from a convenience store (which he had expressed interest in earlier in the episode).
- "Why Did You Buy Me That" revolves around this trope.
- An entire episode of Sabrina the Animated Series has her trying to find a better gift for Salem than a cheap picture frame. Hilarity Ensues.
- Taken to extremes in Clone High, where Cleo gives Abe his own knork - which he had created himself, AND which he had thrown out, so she literally gave him the first thing she found in the trash outside.
- One The Simpsons Christmas special had Homer at a Secret Santa exchange at work where, after receiving a DVD player from Carl and being asked by Lenny where his present was, he says to Lenny, "Your present is right in the other room." He then goes offscreen to the other room and is clearly heard saying "C'mon, machine, take my dollar! ... Fine, we'll play it your way!" He then tackles the machine (still offscreen) and returns with a tube of Certs breath mints. Lenny is understandably disgusted. (After watching Mr. McGrew's Christmas Carol on late-night TV later, he experiences an Ebenezer Scrooge-style turnaround and gives Lenny a photo cube with pictures of both of them plus Carl.)
- In the very first episode, "Simpsons Roasting Over An Open Fire", Homer doesn't get a Christmas bonus and is forced to buy cheaper gifts, including a dog chew toy for Maggie.
- A more recent episode, "Mypods and Boomsticks", had the Simpsons each returning the identical kitty calendars Bart bought them at the last minute.
- Another episode featured a store devoted entirely to last minute gifts.
- A Musical Episode had Homer frantically driving around town on Christmas Eve, singing "I need a present for my wife, or I'll have no sex for life." It turns out Marge knew he would forget, so her present for him was a present he could give to her.
- Homer ended up buying Marge a bowling ball as her birthday present because he was doing last-minute shopping. As soon as this was revealed, she was quite P.O.'ed.
- The bowling ball was even engraved... with his name.
- In the opening sequence of a recent episode, the billboard is one from the Kwik E Mart with a smiling Apu which says: Last-minute gifts for people you don't like
- Peter Griffin once destroyed a rack of "terrible pharmacy toys" at Mort's pharmacy with a cannon (it was the episode where he decided to become a pirate) in order to prevent them being given as lame last-minute gifts.
- On a King of the Hill Christmas episode, Luanne is slightly disappointed with her gift.
Luanne: Bobby, I got you a Discman, and, Uncle Hank, I got you a pair of Timberland boots. ...And I got toilet paper and a laundry mangle.
- In one episode of Max and Ruby, Ruby tries to prevent Max from doing this, as he wants to buy their grandmother candy vampire fangs. (Which, coincidentally, he really wants.) However, at the end of the episode, it turns out that their grandmother has a good sense of humor, and she loves the candy vampire fangs Max gives her.
- An interesting subversion in an episode of Doug. Doug has been invited to Patty's birthday party, and he agonizes over what to get her, as he knows her (but not well.) He knows she likes sports, so he tries to get her a Beet-Ball (for a game similar to softball, except the ball is shaped like a beet root), but that doesn't work out. He finally makes her a towel rack, but she uses it instead for the Beet-Balls everyone else got her, thus making it her favorite gift that she received.
- Some stores seem to have certain items placed by the registers specifically for this reason, such as shoddy, kid-friendly movies and video games that are exclusively stocked in this area of a store.
- In at least some parts of the world, this isn't quite so embarrassing anymore, as many convenience stores and drugstores usually carry a large spread of major-brand gift cards (Apple, Sears, Victoria's Secret, Zynga... okay, it gets a bit odd) so it's usually easy enough to find something someone will like.