"Gift of the Magi" Plot
Frank: I shaved my head and got you a watch fob.
Dr. Forrester: Oh, you sold your hair and bought me this beautiful watch fob?The Gift of the Magi, where Alice and Bob buy a present for each other — each gift meant to go with something the other highly values — and then find that both of them had to sell their respective treasures to pay for the other's gift, making the gift simultaneously priceless and worthless. This plot has shown up numerous times, usually in a Sitcom, with the exact gifts changed to suit the characters; in every case, everyone involved gives up the thing that makes the gift they receive worthwhile. The kicker — and the reason we're supposed to see this as heartwarming despite the Downer Ending — is that in doing this the two of them prove, simultaneously, that the other means more to them than the thing they most value. Sometimes the writers make a happier ending where Alice and Bob get their original possessions back, often as a gift from Charlie. This is a Sub-Trope of Whole Plot Reference and a multiple person subtrope of Two Rights Make A Wrong. Compare Do They Know It's Christmas Time?, Outhumbling Each Other. Sister Trope to Yet Another Christmas Carol, How the Character Stole Christmas, and It's a Wonderful Plot.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Miyako of Hidamari Sketch invoked this as Hiro and Sae exchanged gifts... Of course nobody understood what she said.
- Subverted and lampshaded in a Lupin III (Red Jacket) episode, "Is this like the Gift of Magi? Because I hate that story."
- In chapter 4 of Franken Fran, a high school couple unknowingly swap genitals. The girl was raped as a child and has an irrational reaction to being touched by a man, and the boy swaps genders for her sake. So does she, and it's all treated as a joke at the end. Namely, the girl catches on that intention, and so Fran gives them each other's organs.
- In YuYu Hakusho, this is part of Hiei's backstory. One of the conditions the demon surgeon made Hiei agree to before implanting Hiei's Magical Eyes was that Hiei could never reveal his true identity to his Separated at Birth sister. The same sister that Hiei wanted to find using the Magical Eyes. When Hiei meets the surgeon again and has to duel him, the surgeon agrees to rescind the condition if Hiei wins. While Hiei claims that he had no intention of ever revealing himself to his sister, the surgeon believes that actually meeting her might have changed Hiei's mind.
- One of the Christmas Chapters of Poor Poor Lips has the characters referencing this story. Ren's mother comes to the conclusion that the moral of the story is "People should discuss what presents they plan to get one another".
- In an Archie story, Betty gives up the money she's saved all year for a new dress to buy Archie snow tires for his car. Archie decides to buy Betty an expensive diamond pin to go with her new dress, but ends up forced to sell his car to afford it. Fortunately, Veronica realizes what is going on, and when Christmas comes presents Betty with the dress and Archie with his car. Moral of this story: have a millionaire friend.
- Another story starring Cheryl Blossom's family, Cheryl's dad, fed up with the 'who-can-buy-the-most-expensive-gift' contest Cheryl and Jason have going on between each other, refuses to fund their Christmas shopping, telling them to sacrifice something for the holiday. After some initial confusion on the definition of sacrifice, the Blossom siblings get to it. Since Cheryl loves bossing people around so much, Jason gets her a staff for a beach home she owns, selling his new car to pay them. cheryl, meanwhile, sells that very home to buy a tricked-out garage for Jason's new car. In the end, the kids simply ask their father for new things to replace the stuff that was sold.
- The anthology Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, issue #5, was The Crypt of the Magi. Sylvia sells her eyes to a medical school to buy Claude some brass knuckles to protect him from bullies, but Claude has lost all of his fingers in an accident at the machine shop where he has been moonlighting—to afford colored contact lenses to cover Sylvia's ghastly jaundiced eyes.
- A single panel in a The Simpsons comic featuring Grandpa Simpson's garbled Christmas stories shows us Gerald (the baby with the unibrow) having sold his eyebrow to a wig maker to buy Maggie a pacifier-cosy, when she's sold her pacifier to buy him eyebrow wax. (Yes, they're both preverbal. Roll with it.) The story's title is "Gift of the Maggie".
- A strip in a 50s horror anthology has a variation, combined with the legend of Pygmalion. A misogynistic woodcarver is ordered to carve a female figurehead for Napoleon's flagship, then falls in love with it. To his astonishment, the figurehead briefly comes to life and tells him that she loves him too. Unfortunately she can only speak once a month while the clock is striking midnight. The woodcarver steals a potion from a gypsy that will turn him to wood so that he can be by his true love's side on the figurehead. Unfortunately, just as he's turning permanently to wood, his beloved turns permanently to flesh and blood - the gypsy's revenge for his theft.
- Parodied in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. First Rizzo tells Gonzo he sold his rare cheese to buy a crystal petri dish for Gonzo's mould collection, but Gonzo sold the mould to buy a diamond tipped cheese slicer ("Did you keep the receipt?"). Then Beaker sold his autographed periodic table to buy a stand for Bunsen's electron microscope, but Bunsen sold his microscope to buy Beaker rare mutagenic elements. Then Sal Manella explains that he sold his motorbike to get Johnny Fiama a solid gold record player. Much to Sal's outrage, Johnny's response is an offhand "Oh. Thanks, Sal."
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas : Emmet has to put a hole in his mother's washtub, and she has to sell his tools, for both of them to enter a singing contest to win money to buy gifts for each other. In a rather depressing variation on the tale, they both fail to win (and the toolchest/washtub were the only means either of them had to make a living). Everything gets resolved when, at the end of the movie, the owner of a local restaurant hires them as his house band.
- Inverted in Philip K. Dick's "Oh to Be a Blobel!" This story happens in the aftermath of a war between Earth and Titan. Earth has humans, Titan has Blobels, and spies in the war are made Involuntary Shapeshifters. After the war a human and Blobel spy decide to get married as they are able to spend most of the day in the same form. Their nature causes them a lot of anguish and problems which eventually leads to them filing for divorce. The Blobel wife, in order to save their marriage, decides to undergo a new medical treatment which turns her permanently human. But the human husband has already left to pursue business opportunity on another planet, and in accordance with the local laws had himself turned permanently into a Blobel...
- There is a parody sequel to the story where the husband trades his arms to an armless French hatmaker for a fancy hat, and the wife sells her head to the wigmaker so she can buy him a wristwatch.
- There was a short story in the children's magazine Cricket in which the protagonist sold an heirloom decorative plate to buy her boyfriend a bike helmet, and he sold his bike to buy her a carved wooden display stand for the plate. They were both rescued by her little brother, a money-grubbing brat who bought the bike and plate from the pawnshop for Christmas gifts.
- In the Steve Martin short-short story Gift of the Magi Indian Giver, Carolyn sells her cuticles to buy Roger shinbone polish, while Roger of course sells his shinbones to buy Carolyn cuticle frames.
- In The Princess Diaries, Mia sells one of her Buffy figurines to get her boyfriend something. Her boyfriend sold the thing that her present to him was supposed to compliment to get her the last figurine in her collection. Whoops.
- "The Little Blue Dishes", a traditional story, comes at this sideways. Only Peter knows what Gretchen wants. He has only a penny so he buys her candy instead. Hans eats the candy and makes up for it with the blue dishes — the only thing in the store that he can afford.
- An odd variation in Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. At the start of their relationship, Molly finally agreed to stay on her antipsychotic medication, which among other things prevents delusions of being an After the End Action Girl (It Makes Sense in Context), and in return Theo finally gave up his pot habit. But when Christmas comes Theo wants to get her a priceless antique sword that would be absolutely perfect for her Action Girl persona. To afford it, he starts growing pot again to sell it, and falls off the wagon. Meanwhile, she's getting him a massive, elaborate bong. To afford that, she stops taking her meds.
- Subverted in Hogfather, when the Dean gives the Bursar a box to keep his dried frog pills in. The Bursar, naturally, doesn't have any pills to put in it ... because the Dean already swiped them from the Bursar's room, so he wouldn't have to shell out any more money to give him a full pillbox.
Live Action TV
- One episode of Alice has Flo selling her Black Velvet Elvis to buy her son some gift — unbeknownst to her, her son has bought a frame for the Elvis portrait. The other characters end up similarly screwed, until Mel comes in dressed as Santa Claus, and corrects the problem.
- An episode of The Single Guy has the single guy and one of the female characters encountering this situation, the exact gifts being a Russian Doll and a comic book. At the end, the single guy makes a quip that someone should write a book about this. Lampshade Hanging, anyone?
- Bert and Ernie did this in the 1978 TV special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. Bert trades his paperclip collection to Mr. Hooper for a soap dish for Ernie to put his rubber duckie in. Ernie meanwhile trades his rubber duckie for a fancy box to hold the paperclip collection. Of course, Mr. Hooper stops by the apartment on his way home and gives them back the items they traded. Watch!
- Parodied and subverted on a Xmas episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when TV's Frank gives Dr. Forrester a watch band as a gift but reveals that he paid for it by selling Dr. Forrester's watch. Dr. Forrester then gives Frank a book about death and reveals he paid for it by stealing Frank's blood while he slept and then selling it "so I wouldn't have to use my own money". To which Frank responds, "Oh, Henry!"
- Parodied again in their other Christmas episode: Frank shaved his head and bought Dr. Forrester a watch fob (although apparently the two events were not related), but Dr. Forrester had neglected to buy Frank anything. He tried to save face with a $25 savings bond, but Frank was, to say the least, not pleased with the results ("My hair! My beautiful head of TV's Frank hair!").
- There was a one way version of this in an episode of The Honeymooners. Frantic to find Alice a Christmas present, Ralph sold the bowling ball he had bought recently to get money. On Christmas morning, Ralph opens his present from Alice to discover that it's a bowling ball bag.
- In the 3rd season Christmas Episode of 7th Heaven, Eric sells his old records to buy a chain for a cross Annie's mother left her, while Annie sells her cross to buy Eric a jukebox. In the end, the pawn shop owner comes over on Christmas morning to set things right.
- Little House on the Prairie had a Christmas episode where Charles bought Laura a saddle for her horse and worked refurbishing a set of wagon wheels to buy Caroline a stove. Before he could pick up the stove, Laura sold her horse to pay for it. Laura does get the horse back, a year or two later.
- On the original run of Saturday Night Live, John Belushi is the husband, and Laraine Newman the wife. As per the story, he sells his watch, and she sells—the brush she used to brush her long hair, for a much cheaper gift than he got her. Breaking into a standard Belushi rage, he begins to strangle her.
- The opening sketch for a Christmas Episode in the early 1990's centered around Donald and Ivanna Trump exchanging their Christmas gifts to one another. Donald got Ivanna a gold-plated, bejeweled door for her mansion, and Ivanna got Donald a gold-plated, bejeweled anchor for his yacht. Shortly afterward, Ivanna breaks down in tears, explaining that she had to sell her mansion to afford the anchor, to which Donald says that he had to sell his yacht to afford the door.
- Parodied on an SNL Christmas special hosted by Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. Tina sold something of hers to buy Jimmy an amp for his guitar. When she gives it to him, he mentions that he got her a present as well. Tina says, "Don't tell me you sold your guitar." Jimmy says, "No. Here's your present." A beer helmet.
- Barney & Friends used this plot in a Season 11 Christmas Episode. After Barney and his friends decide to do a "Secret Santa" thing, B.J. gets drumsticks for Riff by trading his baseball. Riff, on the other hand, gets B.J. a baseball glove by trading his drum. In the end, Barney (dressed like Santa) returns the items back to the two dinos. To make the reference even more obvious, the episode is titled "Gift of the Dinos."
- Happened between Ponch and Jon on CHiPs
- One episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Long Morrow", has a variation of this: A young couple is faced with the issue of the man having to go on an 40-year-long space mission that involves suspended animation which will keep him young while she ages back on Earth. The woman decides to put herself into suspended animation so that she will still be young when he comes back, only to learn that he took himself out of his own suspended animation so that he would be as old as her when he came back.
- The Playhouse Disney educational skit series Out of the Box presented this fable in its holiday special.
- One of the Net Movies for Kamen Rider × Super Sentai × Space Sheriff: Super Hero Taisen Z has the characters trying to figure out how bamboo pole salesman stay in business; Gavan's suggestion is a riff on this tale, with the young couple played by Urataros (who sells his pole instead of a watch) and Miss America. Rinko Daimon considers the story so moving that she declares Gavan's explanation the best.
- Swing-rock band Squirrel Nut Zipper's Christmas album Christmas Caravan features a track called "Gift of the Magi", a straight telling of the original story as a song.
- This Count Your Sheep strip is an interesting variation on the trope.
- xkcd turns it inside-out here with Black Hat Guy and his girlfriend.
- Walkerton doesn't quite get it right.
- A transformation-based version happens in The Dragon Doctors . Euryale, a gorgon, pays a wizard to turn her into a human so she won't turn her boyfriend to stone, but at the same time he's paid someone else to turn him into a rock-skinned being so she wouldn't have to worry about doing the same. Luckily Euryale had earned infinite credit with the wizard in question, so they can easily get it fixed, and just laugh it off.
- In Sluggy Freelance, Torg and Riff buy each other a flannel shirt and a new overcoat... but they both sold their shoulders to science to pay for the other's gift. Or that's what Torg says anyway. They actually do have their shoulders afterwards ("They grew back.")
- The Non-Adventures of Wonderella gives us half a gift. The other half involves toy hamsters.
- Nedroid knows exactly what to make of this.
- In Stubble Trouble Liasonya the foxtaur sells her Rapunzel Hair to buy a gift for her boyfriend. It doesn't turn out so well...
- A Neopedia article in Neopets about two brothers follows this plot.
- Partially parodied in the 2012 Christmas Special of Pat The NES Punk. Pat gives up a recently purchased Fairchild Channel F videogame console to get his neighbor, Frank, a book with pictures of The National Park. Frank's gift to Pat were games for the Fairchild, prompting the latter to assume that he sold his van (which was mentioned to be missing from outside) to afford the games. Frank laughs at the assumption, as he merely sold a shovel to get the money and that the van is in the shop getting fixed.
- Parodied in Episode 7 of Blamimation, where Scott's air conditioner dies during a heatwave. At the end we see that Scott has sold the air conditioner to buy a snowcone for Kris, and that Kris has bought refrigerant for the air conditioner... and sold his head, leaving him unable to enjoy the snowcone.
- Parodied in a show within the show in "Spongebob Squarepants" - "Honey, I couldn't afford anything this year for our anniversary , so I got you this box ." " That's what I got you!"
- In the first Rugrats Christmas special, "The Santa Experience", Angelica puts Phil and Lil in a "Gift Of The Magi" Plot situation as part of a prank: she trades Lil a Reptar space helmet to give to Phil in exchange for her favorite coloring book, and takes Phil's Reptar doll in exchange for a box of crayons that he can give to Lil. Upon discovering that bad kids don't get presents, however, Angelica struggles to fix the situation, and ultimately gives them their original presents back as their Christmas gifts.
- Parodied in Futurama: Zoidberg gave combs to Amy, who sold her hair to buy combs for Hermes, who sold his hair to buy combs for Zoidberg. Zoidberg thanks him, saying this will go great with his new hair—then removes his hat to reveal Hermes' and Amy's.
- One of the Looney Tunes shorts saw the object of Pepe Le Pew's affections finally realize that Pepe was the only male giving her attention at all. So, in an attempt to make the relationship work, she hung around a limburger factory to gain a bad smell. Meanwhile, Pepe finally realized that it was his stench that had put the cat off and hung around a perfume factory to gain a good smell. The end of the short sees a nice turnaround to the Mad Love scenario: the cat chasing the skunk.
- Happened in CatDog during "Brothers Day", then subverted when Dog sold Cat's Gift after buying it to buy something for himself. More specifically, Dog gave up his pool of mud that he and Cat wrestled in to buy Cat a loufa case. Cat sold his loufa to get Dog a mud wrestling costume. Dog reveals that he sold the loufa case and got Cat a mud wrestling outfit as well, because "I looked up the recipe for mud, and it's really easy to make!"
- Played with in the Phineas and Ferb Christmas Special. Jeremy gives Candace a pair of earrings that she wanted (and was going to have her good necklace made into a pair like them), but he sold his guitar (which he was going to trade in for a silver one) to pay for them. Candace, meanwhile, buys the silver guitar by selling her good necklace, so instead of them both losing something they valued for a useless gift they both ended up with the same things they would have if neither bought any presents at all.
- One comic story in the Phineas and Ferb magazine has the titular stepbrothers making gifts for each other for National Inventor's Day. Phineas has his wrenches melted down to make a steel carrying case for Ferb's blueprints, while Ferb cuts his blueprints into a pegboard for Phineas' wrenches.
- Robot Chicken had a great parody of this story- the wife naturally sells her hair to buy a chain for her husband's pocket watch. When we see the husband trying to buy his wife some combs, the shopkeeper suggests he sell his watch to afford them... only for the husband to point out that his watch is an antique in perfect working condition and is worth way, way more then a pair of combs, no matter how fancy. "What are they, solid gold?"
- One of the stories told in Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas sees Minnie Mouse selling her watch to buy Mickey a case for his harmonica, while Mickey has pawned his harmonica to get her a chain for her watch. As in the original short story, no setting-right takes place come Christmas morning.
- The short series The Mix-Ups had a short in which each of the main characters sells a possession to buy another a birthday present. They all end up receiving presents meant to go with the things they sold, but fortunately manage to find new uses for them.
- A non-Christmas example happens in an episode of Horseland. Two of the girls, who are siblings, sell clothes that will match things they own for a parade. Unlike the original story, they solve the problem that the thing that matches each clothing item was sold by having them sell something else that wasn't clothing to buy fabric.
- In the Teen Titans Go! episode "Opposites", Cyborg and Jinx's respective teams wouldn't allow them to date. Jinx managed to convince the HIVE Five to turn good, but Cyborg convinced the Titans to turn evil, so they were still enemies.
- In one of his volumes of kidspeak, Rabbi Chaim Potak shares a letter from a young boy who sold his fancy and expensive calculator to buy ink for his father's beloved fountain pen. His reasoning is that his father's birthday is coming up and that his calculator's battery, which is a rare and hard to obtain type, has run out. When his father's birthday comes, he presents his father with his gift, only for the father to reveal that he has sold his pen to buy batteries for the calculator.