This week the country defrosted long enough for everyone to start buying their Christmas presents. Unfortunately, a large percentage of those presents won’t be the right ones. Buying for children, for example, can be laden with pitfalls. You’ll often hear adults declare “sure they’ll end up getting more fun out of the box”. If you actually interviewed the child, I suspect they would reveal that capering around with a piece of cardboard is actually an act of quiet desperation. A cry for help about the inadequacy of the gift.
The trauma is not just for the receiver. The giver can also experience disappointment. As an uncle, well-intentioned but lacking the appreciation that children grow up and move on, I have arrived to various nieces’ and nephews’ houses with what I thought would be a delightful collection of fairy stories, only to find that most of their other presents were shiny, white and began with the letter “i”.
Educational gift-giving doesn’t end in childhood. Adults will often be afflicted with a mania to ‘improve’ their parents. This mania usually starts when we move out of home and get our first proper job. All through our teenage years, we’d had a nagging feeling our parents needed to be taught a thing or two because we knew it all. Now, two weeks into our first job and tanked up on “Aren’t you great for a young fella?” praise from new employers, we’re convinced of our omniscience. Thus begins a few years of “improving gifts”.
I have been as guilty of this as anyone. One December I went on a trip to Granada in southern Spain. Granada is famous for its Islamic architecture and design. I wanted to strike a pretentious blow for multi-cultural knowledge and diversity. So I bought my parents an ornate Moorish teapot for Christmas. I arrived home determined to change tea-drinking in the house forever.
“I got it at the Alhambra. Did you know the Moorish kingdom of Spain was a haven for religious tolerance. Did you? Did you? No of course not. Well? Aren’t you going to make tea in it?”
The problem is, you can’t just bring a new teapot into an Irish house. The longer a teapot is in use, the nicer the tea that comes out of it. A brand new teapot – lacking the comforting tannin colour and a layer of old leaves – will simply not make as grand a cup of tay as its predecessor.
And so it was that I came home a few months later to find the Moorish teapot standing forlornly on the sideboard, acting as a receptacle for the kind of items that just doesn’t go anywhere else – three paperclips, an old smoke alarm battery and a used highlighter.
After that I resolved to get my parents things they might actually want – though that takes time and thinking. So I get them vouchers instead. Many people do put a lot of thought into presents – they think very deeply about what they would like themselves and hope that the recipient likes it too. Sometimes you can get away with this – say if it’s one spouse bringing another on holiday. Other times the self-interest may just be too obvious.
“What do you think of the football boots Nana? What’s that? I might as well take them away myself? Are you sure?”
At least someone wants them. They don’t need to be regifted. Regifting is the process of moving around a gift that no one wants until eventually it ends up in Oxfam. The next time you receive a large china fruit bowl from a jack-the-lad who normally owns one cup and one spoon, a bottle of auld lads’ whiskey from a non-drinker or a Newbridge Silverware utensil you don’t recognise, just accept it with grace and begin thinking about who will be the next in line.
The person who normally best combines altruism and perceptive present buying is, of course, Santa. This year may be tougher. New budget changes have meant that Santa Support is cut for third and subsequent children but he’s always been an expert at making something out of nothing.
Santa was fairly predictable when it came to my childhood – a different teddy bear each year was welcomed into the extended furry family. Apart from one year when Santa got a bit confused and presented me with a stuffed bunny called Angeline. I was an equal opportunities employer so Angeline was treated no differently. The other teddy bears – Sylvester, Henry and Panda – were warned about any exclusionary behaviour. The error obviously bothered Santa because the following year, when delivering a Dunnes jumper, he wrote back to explain the lack of a bicycle and how he didn’t always get it right. His handwriting was shaky, which was understandable, he’d had a long journey and this was back in the 80s before all the bypasses were built.
Santa doesn’t expect anything in return of course. Not all present giving is so one-way. If you are in a mutual present exchange situation, try to ensure the presents are roughly of the same level. A situation where one party is left in significant negative ‘requitey’ is not good.
Before the snow starts again, I’d best finish my own presents. I think I know who’d like a Moorish teapot.