Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The cunning art of present-giving

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

At this time of year, you will be bombarded by ten-point-plans. You will be earnestly advised how to conjure up the perfect Christmas feast, what to do with recalcitrant or embarrassing relatives, how to do your shopping, the correct manner in which to decorate your house, and generally how NOT TO GO MAD. It is as if Christmas has become a major military engagement, and so must have a detailed battle plan.

For some reason, most of this is aimed at The Women. I'm not sure which gender this insults the most. The tired assumption is that the ladies are in charge of all logistics, presumably because they are biologically programmed to cook and shop, while the gentlemen are so hopeless and feckless that all they are capable of is rushing around the department stores at 6pm on Christmas Eve, getting entirely inappropriate presents.

I hate ten point bloody plans, especially ones that trade in cliché and platitude. So of course I am now going to give you one.

Well, not quite. But since I opened up the present cupboard, I have been thinking quite a lot about the giving of presents. It should be an entirely joyful, easy thing: I love and admire you, and here is the delightful thing I bought. In fact, it is fraught with misunderstanding and pitfalls.

So here, for what it is worth, are my thoughts on the matter:

If I did believe in rules, I would say the absolute number one dictum of present giving is to try and find someone something that they would not buy for themselves.

Alongside this, trotting in tandem at the heart of the matter, is empathy. It is not a word I love, and I wish there were another I could use, but it is central to the whole process. I try to imagine myself into the other person's shoes, picture them tearing off the wrapping, and then - will their heart fall, or rise like a balloon? Will they have to do the awful, hearty fake thanks, or give an authentic cry of delight?

As in all things, I apply the William Morris rule as much as possible. Useful and beautiful, useful AND beautiful, I chant, to myself.

The thing which makes people feel most cherished is if you remember something they said they wanted. One year, I complained, in an offhand way, that I could never find a really decent pair of oven gloves. I quite forgot the remark until Christmas day, when one of my step-nieces gave me the most beautiful pair. Now, on the face of it, oven gloves are not the most thrilling of presents. You probably won't find them in those glossy lists of desirable presents in the magazines. But it was one of the best presents I ever got, partly because I cook a lot, and I really needed them, but mostly because the niece had taken note, remembered, and gone out with the sole purpose of finding me something I had said I lacked. It was incredibly touching.

This is quite dull, but reciprocity is important, otherwise your generosity can cause shame instead of pleasure. If you give someone a cashmere scarf, while they have bought you a small box of bath salts, they will feel sad for the rest of the day. It is difficult to do, but I do try and envision what sort of thing someone might get me, and attempt to reciprocate in kind. If you know your best friend is broke, while you have just signed a new contract, you might think it enchanting to spoil her, but it could just rub in the fact that she is on her uppers this year. Some people do ten pound pacts to avoid this kind of thing. My dear cousin and I tend to discuss our presents in more general terms: is it an extravagant year, or are we going to confine ourselves to stocking presents only?

I sometimes think the opening is 90% of the fun. Quite often with the nieces and my sister I do several little presents rather than one big one.

This is the hoariest of old notions, and can make the busier of you feel like failures from the start, but something you make yourself, with love, can be the best present of all. Obviously this will not work with your more materialist friends, who long to see a glorious brand name staring back at them when they rip off the wrapping paper, so it is as well to judge it finely. You do not have to go all crafty and spend hours stitching and gluing. I have a semi-tradition of making truffles. It costs only the price of some good chocolate and a bit of sugar and a dash of brandy, does not take too long, and if you put them in a nice bag with a bit of ribbon they make a sweet present, from your very own hands.

It is not just the thought that counts, but thought is crucial. Someone I love very much was once given a cheese grater for Christmas. It was a very posh cheese grater, from some luxurious emporium. It almost certainly grated cheese better than any grater yet invented. One problem: she is famous for hating cheese.

This is entirely subjective, but I think wrapping does matter. Cheap paper with slapdash sellotape all over it is quite lowering, even if the present itself is lovely. I favour brown parcel paper (very cheap from the post office) with pretty haberdashery ribbon.

The only really useful practical idea which I do know is always to have a couple of spare presents wrapped and ready to go, in case of unexpected guests. Some charming soap or a pot of Gentleman's Relish or similar are good generic items.

Oh, and if I am going to go all didactic I would make a law that all ghastly 'comedy' presents should be banned by fiat. Anything to do with farts, bosoms, bottoms, or bodily functions makes me want to go and put my head in a box. Even if they are fleetingly amusing, those kind of presents are literally good for nothing, and will end up in landfill. And I worry about the landfill.

I am going to stop now, before I get prescriptive and dogmatic. I have a sudden desire to delete this whole thing. What am I doing, holding forth on something about which you know quite enough? It's the kind of thing I usually despise. But it was in my head, and so out it comes. Forgive me.

Pictures of the day are extra beautiful ones of the dogs, in an attempt to make up for it:

14th Dec 1

14th Dec 5

14th Dec 14

14th Dec 12

14th Dec 19


14th Dec 3

I admit I got slightly carried away, but they were so ready for their close-up that it seemed rude not to.

Today is a dreich, raw old day. Everything looks rather brown and sad:

14th Dec 10

(Although I do admit that the old hill, lost in the mist, has a mournful glory all its own.)

I had to look for beauty in the little things. Luckily, there was a stick with some lichen to divert me:

14th Dec 6

14th Dec 7

14th Dec 8

And a marvellous old hinge which someone had mysteriously left on a tree stump:

14th Dec 9

And a tiny silvery plant clinging to the dry stone wall:

14th Dec 2

And a buddleia leaf:

14th Dec 18

And the defiantly green conifers with their little brown buds:

14th Dec 11


  1. love buying gifts when it goes well, hate it when it's not working- completely agree about useful and beautiful.

    funnily enough I'm fairly sure the thing my Mother was most pleased with ever was oven gloves- so perhaps they are the answer!

  2. I actually really like this post. Present giving is fraught. My sister is famous for returning things to the shops so last year, I showed her her gift a fortnight before to check it was right. It was right but in the wrong size (the size she had stated was too small).

    I think that was more to do with my peace of mind than hers but the fact that she does it every year (mostly to my parents) upsets me, and I did not want to be in the list of people who were hurt. So I spent hours picking the right thing and then showed it to her first so I would not feel the disspaointment.

    This year she is having a year of buying nothing for herself so I have strict instructions on what to get her. I like to get people unexpected things they want but do not feel they can buy, this means every five years I buy my mother very good slippers, but this whole process is often overtaken.

    So I like your post as it chimes with my ideas, and because I am sad that a lack of time means that this year the presents are not wrapped in parcel paper and tied with ribbon. I shall buy them in January I think to have them in stock!

  3. I love most of all that after a day of wrangling in the corporate jungle I can log on and read a post like this and see those beautiful dogs. They really are so beautiful. I am in awe that they never take a bad shot/have a bad side. They are like the Gisele of the dog world. Lou xx

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  5. My family has a tradition of asking everyone what they want, usually in October. You are never sure what you are going to get but you know you will want it. If the thing you hanker for is expensive, since everyone knows they can then club together and you get it. Simple and effective. And what joy for all on Christmas day!

  6. Rose - laughing a lot about the oven gloves.

    Siobhan - so pleased you liked it; for some reason I felt very doubtful so am reassured that it chimed with you.

    Lou - you do know the way straight to my heart. Now feeling very swanky about having SUPERMODEL dogs. :)

    Tattie - such an excellent family plan, esp the clubbing together. Might try that next year.


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