An unexpected gift helped one learn one of the first rules of fatherhood: always read the label.

I have a knackered old out building at the back of my property. The doors are broken and the roof leaks and it’s just a dumping ground for unfinished garden projects and things I need to take to the tip. I keep meaning to clear it out and do something useful with it, but I’ve never settled on what.

This Christmas though, the perfect project was handed to me.

In my experience there are three types of gift. There’s the thing you want, the thing that’s in the ball park of what you want, and the thing that’s completely random. For example, a book token is what I want, a book chosen for me is in the ball park, and a Jewish menorah is completely random. I am not Jewish, nor is the family member who bought it for me.

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But we’ve all had the random stuff, right? A mate of mine was once given a single, catering size tin of pineapple chunks for a birthday gift. Of course, some gifts seem random at first, but actually fall into the ball park category. The gift that we, as a family, received at Christmas fell into that category.

I’m known as a bit of an animal lover. I’m always talking about getting a dog or recalling fond memories of my childhood pets. My son loves animals too. After dinosaurs they are his favourite thing. Whenever we are on holiday we have to go to whatever zoo or wildlife park is nearby. Beaches that offer donkey rides are favoured over those that don’t. One of his favourite times last summer was the day we spent at a donkey and pony centre, grooming, feeding and riding on the gentle creatures. My son eulogised about it for weeks afterwards.

So it wasn’t completely random when Mrs H’s parents bought us a donkey. In truth I’d never considered owning a beast of burden but I could see where the thought had come from. I did have that unused out building. We were always talking about getting a family pet but we needed something that didn’t need a lot of exercise. And my son hadn’t shut up about donkeys for about a month straight.

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As the news sunk in, I was Annoyed at the workload that this gift was going to lumber me with. I would need to clear out the space, fix the roof, make sure all the fences around my property were secure and, erm, donkey proof. And how does one donkey proof things? Did I need to worry about other people’s pets? Are donkeys prone to stamp on wandering neighbourhood cats? What about foxes?

As the family opened more presents and generally had a good time, I was sat in quiet panic at the thought of owning a donkey. I had no idea what to feed it, how to exercise it, how much running a donkey costs a year.

I sat with my phone and started looking things up. As I researched it I began to see the appeal of it. It was a very thoughtful gift – there was no doubt my son would fall in love with it immediately, and would come up with a whimsical name for it. Actually, if I left it up to him, my son would doubtless call it ‘Donkey’, but that was OK I could call it something else when he was at school. Maybe Ferris Mueller or Britney Spurs.

Also, we’re lucky enough to have a lot of green space around us so exercise wouldn’t be a problem. I could talk to the riding stables at the top of the hill about feed and get a recommendation for a good vet. It would take some work, yes, but owning a donkey would be a very fulfilling thing. It was as I was pricing up roof joists online that Mrs H sat down next to me and we had the following conversation:

Mrs H: “What you doing?”

Me: “I’m pricing up the work to sort out the old garage.”

Mrs H: “Why?”

Me: “The donkey can’t live in a place with a leaky roof. And I need to sort the fences so it can’t get out.”

Mrs H (confused look on her face): “What are you talking about?”

Me (exasperated look on my face): “If I’m going to have a donkey I’m going to look after it properly, you have to respect your pets.”

Mrs H (trying very hard to stifle a laugh): “It’s not a donkey for us you muppet – Mum and Dad have donated one on our behalf to a family in Ethiopia.”

Me (looking at the information again) “Oh…”

It turns out we already had a donkey in our family. Me. After the initial humiliation I was both relived that I didn’t actually have to look after a donkey and outraged that someone in Africa had stiffed me out of a donkey. Luckily I hadn’t told my son that we were getting a donkey so his disappointment was avoided, but mine was palpable.

In truth, it was the perfect gift, giving something of need to someone else instead of adding to our rampant, Western consumerism. The moral here is that no matter how fried your brain is from lack of sleep and parenting in general, always read the label. That way you won’t shrink your favourite top in the wash, or end up secretly resenting an Ethiopian family for stealing Ferris Mueller.

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