A friend on Facebook asked about the worst Christmas presents we had ever had. I couldn’t really go worse than disappointing – and should one be disappointed, when someone has been kind enough to think of you and send you something? It’s a moot point (known to me as a moveable feast, but that’s another story). Passing on a present is fair game, I think, if it’s something you won’t use but is, actually, a nice thing. I once was stuck for an emergency present and gave away a really lovely Jo Malone candle, which I would much rather have kept and used, but I don’t very often re-gift. If something is really unwanted, it’s more likely to go to a charity shop or a raffle.
The most disappointing thing, because you feel bad for them, is when someone has clearly spent quite a lot of money but it’s so badly missed the mark that it’s hard to thank them with any degree of sincerity. My sister was once given a really twee porcelain figurine by friends who clearly believed it was to her taste, as they described enthusiastically their pleasure at finding just the right thing. She had to keep it on display for when they visited, but fortunately they’ve moved away now and it’s relegated to the back bedroom.
Wink wasn’t always the luckiest when it came to Christmas. She was fourteen when she suffered the Year of the Headscarves. You know, the fake silk printed squares that were folded into a triangle and tied round the head – think The Queen on horseback. In those days, friends of the family gave us presents; something that has rather died out. I only have one non-family offspring that I still give a present to, and that’s money nowadays, and has been since he and his late sister were about ten. That Christmas, these similar small, flat, soft parcels turned up and Wink’s face grew longer and sadder as she opened each of them. It was in the early 60s and she was of an age to be unconfident of her appearance and, whilst she’d have appreciated something that wasn’t childish, some nice bath oil or a pair of stockings (this was pre-tights) wouldn’t have reduced her to holding back tears. The same people probably gave me boxed sets of embroidered handkerchiefs. Remember boxed sets of embroidered hankies? Actually, I wouldn’t mind some nice hankies now, but they aren’t given any more. Nor do I mind scarves, though they’re usually real silk or wool nowadays, rather than rayon. The other standard present was writing paper or notelets, usually given as a hint that the donor wanted a letter of thanks toot sweet.
Having no expectation of non-family knowing what I’d be likely to like, I was always happy to get chocolates or a book token, unless the candies were a particularly revolting box called Weekend, or were marzipan or an abomination called Edinburgh Rock. I hadn’t the sweetest of tooths, but any sort of sweet was a rare treat, so it was doubly and triply disappointing if they were inedible.
My mother-in-law once brought me back a little plaid woollen cape from Scotland. I never wore it, it was out of the question. Another of those quite expensive things that was just plain wrong. My sister-in-law once gave me a huge jar of Mellow Birds instant coffee, which wasn’t meant to be insulting but actually was. We always gave them half a Stilton, which was a brilliant present. Anyone – though preferably only one per year – is welcome to give me half a Stilton or, indeed, pretty well any cheese.
Nowadays, with my grandchildren, I just ask their parents, though that’s not really the kindest of tricks to play when the parents have been racking their brains to come up with ideas for themselves. My older grandchildren have reached the age where money is very acceptable, though I’m attached to the idea of a real present at Christmas. Something to unwrap, to add to a satisfying pile of stuff, to read or play with or try on, seems absolutely required. I still always give Ronan a jigsaw, whatever else he has. And he normally completes it by the time he goes back to work in the new year – though he hasn’t sent his customary photo yet, so either it was especially tricky or else young Rufus takes up too much of his time and he flakes out once the boy is in bed. He started it on Christmas evening while we were still at Weeza’s, with every appearance of enjoyment, so either it’s still an acceptable mum-present or else he’s really, really kind. Or both, of course.