Present Imperfect – Frank McNally on Vincent van Gogh, O Henry, and the Three Wise Men

You really shouldn’t have

For those of us now stressed by the annual decision to postpone present-buying to the last possible moment, it may or may not help to reflect on the anniversary of one of the more infamous Christmas gifts in history.

It was on December 23rd (or in some versions the early hours of the 24th) that poor Vincent van Gogh sliced off his left ear, wrapped it in paper, and delivered it to a young woman named Gabrielle at a brothel in Arles.

Gabrielle worked in the brothel, although not as part of the menu. She was temporarily employed there as a cleaner, to pay off medical bills incurred by her family after a rabid dog attacked her and they had to pay for an expensive vaccine.

The attack left her with a badly scarred arm. And one of the theories behind van Gogh’s desperate act is that Gabrielle’s deformity and the accompanying trauma had in turn affected him to the extent that he became obsessed with her.


How she reacted to the present is not (I think) recorded. He, meanwhile, woke up in hospital next day with no memory on the incident, only the painful evidence. When reviewing the damage Christmas has done to my credit card this year, I will console myself it could have been worse.


A less extreme, but perhaps no less cautionary, tale of Christmas gifts is that the Three (allegedly) Wise Men. As suggested by the Bible, they went to the more traditional extreme of those choosing presents under time pressure: throwing money at the problem.

The gold speaks for itself, but frankincense and myrrh could not have been cheap then either. And yet, divorced as we are by 2,000 years from any sense of the social norms back then, the choices hint to modern ears of the usual last-minute panic on the unprepared.

To paraphrase the American humorist Dave Barry, Frankincense and Myrrh are both types of aromatic gum resin, which suggests they were on a two-for-one Christmas Eve special at the biblical Middle-east version of a 24-hour shop.

The Three (allegedly) Wise Men may be an example of the sorts of people who, according to the economist Joel Waldfogel, should not buy presents at all. In a celebrated study of 1993, Waldfogel calculated a thing called the “deadweight loss” of Christmas gift-giving: the extent to which the cost of presents differs from their perceived value to the recipient.

The big determinant, he found, was “social distance”. The closer a giver was to the recipient, the more appreciated the present was. The more distant the relationship, the greater the negative equity.

Best friends and lovers scored well. So did parents. But as the circle widened to aunts and uncles, grandparents, wise men, etc, the choices worsened, as did the deficit in perceived value. The moral of the story was: those people should just give money.

Of course, that’s the cold logic of economists, for whom it’s never the thought that counts, it’s the achievement of maximum efficiency.


The other side of the argument is presented in a short story some of us did at school: O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Despite the title, it’s not a Nativity tale. It’s about a young couple, poor but in love, who want to buy each other the perfect gift.

He has a much-prized gold watch, inherited from his grandfather. She has beautiful long hair. Studying each other for hints as they pass shop windows, they each decide what the other would most love for Christmas: a platinum fob chain and a set of expensive ornamental combs, respectively.

He pawns his watch to buy the combs. She sells her hair to buy the watch chain. The exchange of presents results in what economists would call zero per cent utility. But O Henry, happily, reached a more poetic conclusion, justifying the story title in his last lines: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”

No doubt he was a sentimentalist. Born William Sydney Porter, his trademark surprise endings were wildly popular with readers, less so with critics. His real life, meanwhile, was almost as troubled as van Gogh’s.

One of the theories about the unusual pen name is that it derived from a sequence of letters in “Ohio Penitentiary”, where he spent three years for embezzlement. His own explanation was more prosaic, that he lifted it from a newspaper society column.

He was not much luckier in love than van Gogh, either. He was also similarly self-destructive. After his second wife – a childhood sweetheart – left him, he continued drinking himself to death, a process completed at the age of 47.

And on that cheerful note, you’ll have to excuse me. I have Christmas presents to buy.