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When it comes to buying presents, I am torn. I want to furnish loved ones with gifts that make their hearts crack. I want the presents I give to make them realise how well understood they are, to show them I have spotted little fledgling interests and passions they have barely acknowledged themselves and that I champion and salute these things. I like my presents to console and comfort and reward those I love for good service (to me). I like to compensate pals for a difficult year with parcels designed to stun. I like to reward extreme kindnesses with extravagant purchases. I like to bury sadnesses and disappointments in my friends’ lives under something splendid. It is as though, in December, it is suddenly within my power to correct ills, reverse fortunes and nourish and nurture, just through a bit of canny shopping. It’s too good a chance to miss. In mid-November everyone starts saying: “I’m not going to go mad this year.” All I want to say is: “Why ever not? It’s your duty.”
I know this is a bit far-fetched. It’s also vain, for deep down I fear my whole approach may be intended to communicate how distinguished I am in my powers of human understanding. The truth is, people may not want to have their inner needs attended to in this way, they might just want – I don’t know – nice soap. They prefer their hearts to remain intact, perhaps. They may even be lacking when it comes to inner needs. (You cannot force a chink on an innocent bystander whose life is complete.)
It’s also true that this kind of deep shopping takes more time than anyone has these days. It requires a campaign that begins in July, limitless funds, much foreign travel (the lace you can buy in Madrid is really something), friends on the inside in retail, and no job yourself to distract you. If you shop in this way, you can also guarantee that by December 23 you will be ill in bed with a temperature and beetroot-coloured tonsils, feeling like Beth from Little Women and Tom Sawyer combined.
“What’s she got?” people will ask.
“It’s a bad case of Christmas,” the doctor pacing the room will say, fingers rubbing his chin, Rodin-style. “I did warn her last year.”
Yet whenever I cut back on Christmas, skimp or settle or let things like convenience or being sensible influence my approach, I feel a tremendous sense of loss. When I have not wrapped things in a lovely way, or I’ve forgotten that it’s important to have a placement of the parcels in Christmas stockings so that there’s a rhythm and a story, with little crescendos occurring up and down the leg, I have felt letdown myself.
For me, Christmas only works if you go all-out. I don’t always do this, life intervenes sometimes – often – and when I don’t embrace Christmas as though it’s the high-maintenance love of my life, the regret that follows can be bitter and sharp.
For a good present can change everything. I know it. I am thinking of the pale blue carpet my mum’s best friend Anne bought me for my bedroom one year which made my life seem 50 per cent more promising overnight. I’m thinking of that good-as-new pair of 1930s polka-dot pyjamas with piped collar and cuffs that my mother found for me, which lent my teenage evenings a touch of Old Hollywood. I am thinking of the Mac my boyfriend surprised me with the first Christmas we were together, replacing my loyal but antique Amstrad – it practically had a “quill” font option – which made my life so much easier. (We’re married now.) I am thinking of the beautiful dressing gown I gave my father one year when we were estranged – he liked it so much, and I liked that he liked it so much, that our differences simply fell away.