What I really want for Christmas
Do those lovely, shiny, colourful packages always fulfil their early promise? The best thing about Christmas presents is often the anticipation rather than the realisation. Even assuming you get what you want, and you give others what they want, you still need to comply with the unspoken, unacknowledged rules of present giving. No wonder Christmas is a time of broken dreams and seething resentments.
Like it or not, present giving implies a contract, and a contract that the parties involved usually understand very well. When they don’t understand it, there are problems, and cultural differences are often at the heart of such problems. I came across a story of a British couple who moved to Sweden for work and rented a flat there. The first thing they did when they moved in was to introduce themselves to their neighbours across the hall and present them with a bottle of wine. The neighbours were aghast at this friendly approach – now they were beholden to this pair of Brits and would have to reciprocate. (Social research suggests that this attitude can be put down to Sweden’s uniquely generous system of welfare benefits, which leaves no one beholden to anyone.)
My sister fell foul of the unwritten rules when, as a young teenager, she bought our grandfather a pocket watch. After all, what could be more suitable for a grandpa born during the reign of Queen Victoria than a pocket watch? Disappointingly, he received it with an air of bemusement. This was the wrong way round; surely watches were what grandfathers bought their granddaughters.
Not surprisingly, there is much anthropological research on present giving and its meaning in different societies. In the west, balance and reciprocity are important aspects of it, and people who knowingly transgress the unwritten rules are not popular. To give too lavish a present is not good: it is to flaunt your (relative) wealth in an unacceptable way, and to exert power over the recipient because they cannot afford to reciprocate and therefore remain in your debt. Too mean a present is an insult; it signals all too clearly the low value you place on your relationship with the recipient.
Yet not all welcome presents are expensive. To my mind, you can’t beat a useful present you didn’t know you needed. The windscreen ice scraper with a woolly mitten attached was just such a present, and I think of the giver affectionately whenever I use it. In the lean years after the end of the war, my aunt apparently used to wish that someone would give her a big box with cleaning products in it: Vim, Lux soap flakes, Windolene. Her budget was so tight it was a stretch to afford those things after she had paid for rent, food and other necessities, so to know that she had a supply laid in would have been bliss.
So what do I want for Christmas? Well, I can tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want books. I’ve got books. I haven’t yet read the biography of Nelson Mandela my son rather precociously bought me back in the 1990s. I don’t want anything that needs looking after, like pets or plants (unless they are outdoor plants: two shrubs my sister gave me are thriving under my benign neglect). I don’t want any loathsome ornaments (more about these in the new year), because I’ve got enough already. What I want is stuff that I wouldn’t buy for myself, like one of those great big red Lindt balls filled with the small round praline chocolates. What I want is stuff that dames aren’t supposed to want, like (whisper it) vastly expensive face cream and spa days. (And I’d like another 100 subscribers for damesnet, please, Santa.)