DECEMBER
2001

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

12-27-01

White Elephant Gifts of an Insect Nature

Gifts! What would the holiday season be without gifts? The annual holiday ritual known as the gift exchange has been going on for literally thousands of years. It all started with three wise men who arrived at that stable in Bethlehem bearing gifts--yes, those kings from afar came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is interesting to speculate about why those three men choose the gifts that they did. Being men, I'm sure one of two things happened. It could be that their wives reminded them to take gifts and handed them the stuff. Or it is possible that on the way they stopped at a roadside market, crawled down from their camels and bought the first three things they saw! If so, this established another traditional ritual--groups of men buying gifts on the night before Christmas!

Either way, the gifts that arrived that night are interesting. Gold, I can understand. Gold is always good. But frankincense and myrrh? What were those guys thinking? Frankincense and myrrh are, in spite of their fancy names, plant sap.

In defense of those first Christmas shoppers, these plant resins are aromatic substances used in candles and ointments and the like. But if you take a gift of smelly stuff to a woman, you better know what she likes! I'm not so sure that those three men were that wise. So there is the distinct possibility that one or both of the plant saps didn't suit Mary.

What we have here is the beginning of another Christmas tradition--the white elephant gift exchange. While real white elephants are rare and venerated in some parts of the world, the term has another meaning in the United States. Here, it is used for something that requires much care and expense for little profit. It is something that is a possession you would just as soon not have--like some holiday gifts we receive.

Office holiday parties frequently feature a white elephant gift exchange. A chance to palm off on someone else a gift that was well intended but not what we wanted or could use!

Some insect-related gifts make good candidates for white elephant exchanges. An insect motif tie would not be a favorite among most men. There is just something about wearing a tie adorned with butterflies that makes some men cringe. But then, they might not be much happier receiving a tie with beetles, bees or dragonflies either!

Some insect things are gaudy enough to end up in a white elephant gift exchange. The series of plastic butterfly wall hangings I saw in a store that handled slightly used items might qualify. So might the real-insect lampshades. With apologies to Martha Stewart, you know, the kind where real butterfly wings are smashed with some dried flowers between two sheets of plastic to form a lampshade.

How about those fly shooter devices. The one is a modern fly swatter. The fly shooter is a spring-loaded device where the projectile is attached to a string so that the shooter doesn't have to chase all over the room after shooting at a fly. This device is billed as an "executive fly shooter." Obviously for the executive who has everything and also a gift that is sure to show up in the white elephant exchange next year.

Another fly shooter actually shoots flies. You place the flies in the chamber of the shooter, pull the trigger and away go the flies. This is for the executive who received the regular fly shooter last year!

Want to give away something imported in the next white elephant exchange? How about the silkworm ashtray that I picked up at a flea market a few years back. It is a real collector's item. You know the kind. It has a clear plastic bottom with all of the life stages of the silkworm encased in it. I haven't given it as a gift yet. I'm waiting for the right person to come along. Silkworm ashtrays, like frankincense and myrrh, are gifts that wouldn't be appreciated by just anyone!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox