My best ever Christmas present came from my kid brother back in the 80’s. I had taken him Christmas shopping which meant waiting impatiently outside some shop while he insisted on running off to buy me something with his life savings of 74p. Eventually he emerged with a big grin and a brown bag. “You’re going to love it” he said, “it cost all of my money”. I was raging. I imagined he’d just been done by some crook who’d sold him a stick of incense in return for his life savings. I said nothing though, after all, it was the season to be merry and all that, so I paid no more attention to the brown bag which by now had been replaced by gift wrap. Then, on Christmas morning I opened it to find a beautiful brown wooden jewellery box. I knew those boxes; I’d had my eye on one for a while, so I also knew that at the time they cost about £2 each. The little rip, I thought, he probably nicked it, or worse, stole money somewhere to buy it. I was wrong on both accounts though. It turned out that he too, had seen the £2 tag and had suggested to the shop assistant that if she put it behind the counter, he might save up and buy it for his sister’s birthday. She asked him how much he had, and when he told her, she replied “well fancy that, that one there in your hand has actually just been reduced to exactly 74p!” We all know the story. It was a small shop, the proprietor was probably a mother or a big sister herself, he was a little boy and it was Christmas.
I still have that box, and like the few other material things that have survived my journey into middle age, when somebody admires it I can say ‘it was a gift’, which translates as ‘this is something of sentimental value’. To me, that’s what presents are all about. They’re about surprising people with nice things that they’d like to own and perhaps would not have bought for themselves for whatever reason. What I like most about giving someone a gift is watching their face when they open it: especially if it’s a kid. And as for receiving, despite knowing how impractical it is to give somebody something they don’t really like or want, to me, even the most hideous ornament will have a certain sense of sentimentality, even if it spends most of the year hidden in the attic.
Of course I know all the arguments against. First of all, the one that you can really only select things for people you know, and that come Christmas you end up buying things for vague in-laws and cousins who you really don’t know much about other than that they’ll be calling over for mince pies, mulled wine and hand over the Christmas gift please. So surely it’s more realistic to give them a voucher or money in a card, maybe even a hamper? Well the thing is, of course they would prefer it, but that’s not really what gifts are all about. To me giving money or vouchers doesn’t feel like a present. It feels like paying compensation money for the fact that we all know so little about each other that we just can’t rack our brains to think of something to buy. It also feels a bit materialistic. If I invited somebody out for dinner and a drink, I wouldn’t expect them to say ‘would you mind giving me the price of the early bird menu and a bottle of wine instead? Because then I can cook a nicer dinner at home and use the money for something more practical.
Then there’s the argument that it’s a waste and that we, the consumers, are all being ripped off when we spend our money on stupid gifts that people don’t want anyways. Certainly, there’s a point to be had here. Believe me, the best place to buy gift sets of body lotion and bath salts along with scented candles, is in the Charity Shops shortly after Christmas and also at the end of June, when every primary school teacher in the country has received enough of them to fill a wheelie bin. But the counter argument to that one is that we just have to use a bit more creativity when setting off on the task of buying gifts, and if you don’t know the person well enough to come up with one thing they might like, then you have to ask yourself the question if it’s really appropriate to be buying them anything at all?
A few years ago I made a deal with some friends. We agreed that because we were all broke to varying degrees, that we’d put a cap on the cost of the Christmas presents to each other. We set it at €10 with the rule being that it was a competition to see just how well you could do on a low budget gift. I was convinced I’d win, having bought one friend a brand new Aran Sweater (label still on and all) in the Charity Shop for €7 and then extravagantly spending the other €3 wrapping it, while another was given a collage of photos from our student days that cost very little to make, along with three books and a CD, all second hand. First prize went to the friend though, who had hauled her unwanted wedding gifts from the attic and presented me with a set of Waterford Crystal glasses, all still in the box. I would be lying to say that I’m a great fan of Waterford glass, but like I said earlier, they’re of sentimental value and I like the story behind their journey.
The worst Christmas present I ever got was also from my kid brother. He grew up and became a lot wealthier than his 74p. But this particular year there were no fancy jewellery boxes, what I got were three goats.
They were delivered in the form of a card that more or less explained that rather than buy me a gift this year, he would use the money to donate three goats to an African Charity. My heart sank. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, how could I ever, in all conscience, suggest it to be more fitting that I receive the latest version of the iphone, when truly, the three goats in Africa are paramount to saving lives? But that wasn’t the point. Sending goats to Africa is hugely important, and I myself have been involved in similar projects. I do feel, however, that when one wishes to make generous and altruistic contributions towards improving the world we live in, that it just doesn’t sit right to say ‘I’m making a donation, not out of my own pocket money though, I’m using the money for your gift to do it.’ It means that the person making the charitable donation isn’t out of pocket, but you might be out of a pressie.
So this year I’m giving goats for Christmas. Knitted goats with button eyes, made by my good self, in Ireland. Because after all, a goat is for Christmas, not just for life.