It's Not The Gift – It's The Thought That Counts…
…or so I was always taught as I opened my fourth ‘Soap on a Rope’ and seventh Blue Peter Annual on Christmas morn. Feigning delight in unwanted festive gifts – and Brussel sprouts – is all part of tradition… handed down from generation to generation.
Clearly, the demand for an Oscar-winning display of gratitude is greater if the giver is there in person, eagerly scanning the recipient’s face. An unwanted gift arriving by post merely requires a written description of the joy it has brought – carefully avoiding over-enthusiasm for fear of raising suspicion.
‘Unwanted’ is not a generic term, of course. ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ can easily be applied to that reindeer jumper which on a teenage boy may appear ridiculous but on any one else… Actually: bad example; never can such a garment appear stylish.
A better illustration would be the large amount of make-up, hair bands and tights of varying colours which regularly appear in my daughter’s pile of presents nestling under the tree – sent from well meaning relatives who’ve clearly not seen my dungaree-clad, tomboy offspring (last spotted in a dress or hair band in the late 1990s). They’re coveted by her more feminine cousin…
…but social etiquette has long decreed that they cannot be instantly given away to her. Instead, for some inexplicable reason they are put away in my daughter’s wardrobe along with all the other unwanted items, predominantly pink, from Christmases past.
Similarly, every year since he first displayed an ability to kick a ball, someone has bought one for my 14 year old son. Its appearance is about as welcome as the third lot of carol singers, and it takes its place alongside the 300 other footballs that currently reside on our back lawn.
‘You can always do with a new ball,’ is my brother’s annual declaration, as he hands over Nike’s latest model to my son, whose fixed grin hides the inner scream shared by all teenagers: ‘just give me the money.’
And it’s not only the children who suffer in silence. I have flowers in my house only on my birthday or after a row. I require one vase only. So why do I have enough to kit out an entire hospital ward – each one received with fake gratitude – before being placed in the charity cupboard?
At least this solution is increasingly becoming an acceptable policy. With charity shops and coffee emporiums vying for dominance on the average British High Street, the guilt felt by discarding a festive gift can now be offset by donating it to a well -meaning cause. The thought of a child in the Third World receiving his very first football and reindeer jumper is enough to negate any perceived insult to the original giver.
Such a philanthropic approach only works, of course, if there’s enough geographical distance between the giver and the presents’ final resting place. The possibility of my brother seeing ‘Nike’s latest’ in the window of Oxfam is enough to ruin Christmas.
This does mean that, come 27 December, under cover of darkness, I have driven car bootfulls of ‘donations’ to the next county to avoid the social embarrassment of discovery.
The same is true of ‘Re-giving’. This secretive approach is rarely discussed but – like buying marked-down groceries from the supermarket– has become increasingly useful in a recession. Where once my daughter’s make up would lie unopened, now it is increasingly being rewrapped and ‘re-given’ to a more worthy recipient, who remains unaware that it has previously had ‘one careful owner’.
Rewrapping is essential, mind; my non-whisky-drinking husband recently gave a bottle of finest malt to his boss with the gift tag ‘Happy Christmas, Uncle Ian’ clearly attached.
There is also the matter of visibility to consider. If the giver of an unwanted gift such as a painting or ornament is a regular visitor then no matter how hideous the item is, it must be on display as non-appearance could offend. With clothing or jewellery, this can be avoided with the phrase, ‘Oh, I haven’t got it on today as I wore it so much last week…’ – an acceptable white lie handed down the generations.
Luckily, in the future, all these social niceties may become deleted one mega byte at a time. The arrival of the internet brings with it screen upon screen of websites shamelessly devoted to selling, swapping and recycling unwanted gifts.
Soon Santa might as well cut out the middle man and tip the contents of his sleigh straight down Ebay’s chimney.
It’s a sad thought, though. Somehow Christmas without an unwanted ‘Soap on a Rope’ to rave about is about as festive as 25 December without a truly miserable Eastenders Special. Some traditions, no matter how painful, are worth preserving.