Carla Carlisle on Christmas presents

When my sister-in-law Christabel suggested that we skip presents at Christmas, my instant response was the very first line of Little Women, grumbled by Jo: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’ To be fair, Christabel’s idea was that the grandchildren would have presents and husbands and wives would give presents to each other, but the peripherique of grown ups-sisters, sisters-in-law, brothers, brothers-in-law and so on-would be freed from the seasonal burden of worrying, shopping, wrapping.

Phrases such as ‘crass materialism’ and ‘true meaning of Christmas’ were not uttered. Christabel’s intention was pure and good: Simplify. My rejection of her proposal meant that my wishes were imposed on everyone else. It was like having a veto on the Security Council of the UN. Out of guilt, I tried to modify. I proposed that all grown-up presents should come from existing household stock. A kind of Clear Your Clutter, but with thought and generosity. Not just getting rid of the flotsam in the Present Drawer that still had jetsam from 1963, but a pact of ‘Once Loved’ presents that might qualify as Simplify Lite.

The russet apples were still hanging when I began my side of the deal. I converted the Darwin Room, with its tall brass beds and Darwin library, into the Present Room. Each night after supper, I roamed through drawers and cupboards, scanning bookshelves, linen closets and stacks of pictures piled in corners of bedrooms. In stronger moments, I braved the attic and the cellar in search of forgotten treasures. At some risk, I dismantled a tower of orphaned suitcases in order to reach a crocodile dressing case with its collection of silver-topped bottles, only to find a label bearing my younger sister-in-law’s name. Luckily, I didn’t give her what was already hers.

But as the Present Room filled up, a strange feeling came over me. Not the virtuous contentment felt by Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy when they gave their Christmas breakfast to a widow with six children and a newborn baby. Not even the feeling described by the poet Anne Stevenson: ‘As furniture heaves off your life/you’ll love your deliverance.’

Feasting on the spread-out relics of my life a blue pottery jug from Kentucky, pewter candlesticks from Porte de Vanves, a Welsh blanket from eBay, a Sheffield plate teapot from Dunkeld, stacks of books my French friend Genevieve calls ‘table coffee’ books-I suddenly remembered all the years I went home for Christmas, when my mother would implore me to go through her closet, her jewellery box, the large cedar chest. ‘Take anything you want,’ she’d say.

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She offered me her full-length mink coat, her cranberry crystal goblets, her own mother’s diamond Victory brooch shaped in the letter ‘V’ that baffled me as a child (‘Who got all the other letters?’ I wondered). Mama longed for me to take something. No, she longed for me to want something. She longed for the peace of knowing that the treasures, modest treas-ures, of her life were treasured by me. That when Home for Christmas no longer meant her home, I would have something of hers that connected her to me.

With the blindness of youth (I flatter myself-I wasn’t so young), I turned down almost all her offers. I didn’t want her mink coat (I’d be grateful for it now) and I preferred clear crystal. I even rejected the Victory brooch (my sister wasn’t so picky). I never actually said that she didn’t have anything I wanted. With dusty tact, I said that I didn’t really need anything.

I don’t know why it took me so long to understand that the real miracle of Christmas is not getting presents. It’s not even giving them. It’s in knowing how to receive them. In an age when we need so little and have so much that our biggest problem is lack of space for all our stuff, we need to clear out our lives. We need to make room for the gifts from those who love us.

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