How to give presents

As soon as we made the pact, I had the feeling that it was like writing a suicide note. This was the agreement: ‘children only’ Christmas presents. No presents for grown-ups. I saw it as a noble stand against rampant consumerism. I felt virtuous, relaxed and relieved. But one thought weighed heavily: if everyone took such a high moral stand, my own shop would go out of business and we would die poor and lonely. It seemed to be the mood throughout the land. My friend Susie’s family version of the pact was Thrift or Re-Gift. This translates as everything has to come from a charity shop or be something you already own. Note: this pact does not extend to anyone under the age of 21, unless the recipients are the tousle-headed boys in the Piaget watch ads or daughters eyeing their grandmother’s 1950s Chanel suits. Despite cries of Scroogeness, this home shopping can be tender and creative.

Susie’s cousin Portia gave her an ancient Brooks Brothers’ box carefully tied with string. Inside were three tiny sweaters Susie had knitted for her two babies, Phoebe and Rufus, and then passed on to Portia’s babies. Portia had saved them for nearly 30 years and returned them to Susie on the eve of Rufus’s engagement to Maura. Portia is one of life’s good givers. On Susie and Tom’s 25th wedding anniversary, she disappeared upstairs before dessert and re-emerged wearing the bridesmaid’s dress she’d worn a quarter of a century earlier. She couldn’t zip it up, but she’d saved it all those years to give to Susie’s daughter. I don’t know if the art of giving is nature or nurture. Now that an autopsy can identify a musician by the shape of the brain, I suspect it’s just a matter of time before the’ll be able to distinguish between the naturally generous and the tight-wad brain. Most people are a little of both.

My mother-in-law wrote lavish cheques to her grateful grandchildren, but she would not willingly wander through shops looking for the perfect present. This may have been a legacy of the war years. My husband tells how he and his sisters opened all their toys on Christmas morning, but by evening, the toys had vanished, wrapped up and put in the attic where they remained until the following year. Lingering frugality may explain why my mother-in-law didn’t like to receive lots of presents. She began the New Year by putting most of her presents into her Present Drawer. Occasionally, she got muddled and returned the Liberty scarf/lavender pillow/Diorissimo eau de toilette to the original giver. Feelings were hurt, but the damage rarely lasted more than a decade. One unexpected bonus of the Christmas pact is that I felt less guilty about giving myself presents. This year, I bought a Magi-mix kettle from Peter Jones and a lamp from Nicky Haslam’s shop on Ebury Street that looks like it was made by Diego Giacometti for the Picasso museum. I paid for my treasures with the Krugerrand my husband has given me for nine Christmases in a row. On Boxing Day, he puts the hefty gold piece back in the gun safe (a little wartime tradition?) for another year.

But this year, I slipped off to Spink’s and converted my gold into more satisfying stuff. Every New Year, I vow to conquer my materialism and live a simpler, spiritual life. This year, I have a head start, because I don’t have stuff I neither want nor need. Still, it is reassuring to begin 2008 in the rich glow of my new lamp, although the Present Drawer looks worryingly bare.

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