How To Control Your Life

Part 109

How can I tell my best friend not to buy me an expensive Christmas present this year? She’s got much more money than me and I just can’t afford to buy her anything expensive in return.

Am I being unreasonable to ask my in-laws to buy Christmas presents worth the same amount for my kids as they do for their other grandchildren? They fob ours off with cheap presents (think pound shop things) every year and give their other grandkids really expensive gadgets.

Our (very) extended family gets together at my parents’ house every Christmas and we all give each other presents and there’s a big present opening. This year, as the kids are all older now (the youngest is seventeen), would it be OK if I suggested we all stop buying ‘real’ presents and just get little token things? Me and my partner are really hard up and we just can’t afford this annual present thing.

Every year my husband buys me a really awful present (think tacky jewellery or ornaments). I spend ages finding him something he will really like and it hurts that he keeps doing this. But if I tell him that I don’t want the tacky stuff he’s going to be upset because he’ll know I haven’t liked any of his past Christmas presents. What would you do?

Help! Last year - as usual - I gave our presents from my brother-in-law’s family to the charity shop, but while they were all together on the counter my sister-in-law walked into the shop and saw them, so now they know what happens to their (horrible) presents. What do I do this year? Shall I suggest we call time on the present giving altogether, pretend nothing happened, or apologise and talk about what presents our families should give each other?

You don’t have to search deeply on the Internet, or listen in to too many conversations in shops, pubs or over kitchen tables at Christmastime before you know just how much this present-giving thing is fraught with problems.

Annie: I’m sorry, Dad. But I’m not going to marry Brian.
George: Okay. Okay. Whatever you want is okay with us.
Annie: I feel so awful after everything you guys have done. Now I have to undo it all.
George: Don’t worry about it. These things get cancelled all the time. Your mother and I can take care of everything. What happened? Another girl?
Annie: No, it wasn’t anything like that. It started out as nothing really. He gave me a present. It’s our eight month anniversary today and he gave me - just look! He said it was for me. For our apartment. Just look.
George: [After a pause] It’s a blender.
Annie: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, I didn’t want to act thrown or anything, but inside I was. I mean, I thought something for the apartment - maybe a new clock, or a cool phone, or a great art book, or something - but a blender? I mean, what is this? 1958? Give the little wife a blender? I mean, it scared me, you know? In terms of his expectations. I started to freak out and he asked me what was wrong and I asked him what a gift like this is supposed to be telling me and he said nothing and I didn’t believe him and we got into this big fight. And he said I was overreacting.
Father of the Bride (1991) Produced by Carol Baum, Nancy Meyers, Howard Rosenman; Directed by Charles Shyer

The problem - rather than the solution - is that ‘It’s the thought that counts’.

If someone gives you a present which is not ‘you’, there’s a problem. You feel that the person doesn’t really know you, or they haven’t taken the trouble to find out what you like these days. (Mothers are often very bad at this, assuming that you like the same things at thirty as you did when you were sixteen.) Or they don’t have the sensitivity to realise that giving a mature working woman a pink cuddly toy (giver’s thought: “What woman doesn’t love pink?”; recipient’s thought: “Do I look six years old?”) or a man aftershave (giver’s thought: “Men never know about these things so he’ll be glad to have someone choose for him”; recipient’s thought: “Do I smell bad? Or perhaps someone doesn’t recognise a £65 aftershave when they smell it?”) is not done nowadays.

Money, of course, is a big one. If you have lots of spare cash and a generous nature, you might want to give big presents at Christmas to show everyone how much you like and/or love them. But if your friends are struggling to meet the bills at the end of the month, what are they meant to do? (Worse, what are they meant to think?) You’re underlining the difference in your incomes, whichever way you look at it. Some people who struggle are glad to receive presents they could never afford for themselves. More, I suspect, feel either that you are playing Lady Bountiful and/or showing off, or obliged to spend more than they can afford in returning the compliment.

Then there’s this question of equal shares. If young Child A receives a cheap present from the grandparents and young Child B gets an expensive one, they probably won’t care a hoot provided the presents are, in each case, what they wanted. Parents will invariably take note and, probably, offence. So what are the grandparents expected to do? Buy the child wanting the cheap present an expensive (but undesired) present instead? Buy a second present to make up the amount (and thereby perhaps cause resentment in the other child)? Give money instead of any present?

A friend of mine, temping in her academic holidays, was once asked in a bar, on Christmas Eve, by her temporary boss to go and buy his wife a Christmas present. “Underwear” he said, “Something sexy. But not tarty. You know the thing”. Well no, Karen didn’t. Having never met the wife concerned - she’d only been working for the temporary boss for a few weeks - she was completely stumped. As she’d failed to persuade the temporary boss that something else might be a better choice, and wanting to get this task over and return to the promised bottle of bubbly, her reward, she canvassed the opinions of the temporary boss’s colleagues as to the wife’s relevant sizings. You may imagine how helpful that exercise proved to be…

Karen was the resourceful type, so she headed out to Dorothy Perkins which, at the time, had just introduced a relatively risqué line of underwear which fulfilled the criterion of “sexy but not tarty” (no scarlet or slashes, and the nylon frills were soft). After a discussion with the saleswoman, Karen purchased a full set of underwear in the most popular styles and colours and in the most common sizes.

“And” she said to me later “if his wife was happy with that little lot I’ll eat the whole set”.

The champagne the temporary boss bought for Karen cost over double what the Christmas present for his wife cost. He sent someone else out to buy the present late on Christmas Eve. He didn’t have any idea of his wife’s sizings or her favourite colours. Happy Christmas, Mrs Temporary Boss.

If you’re in control of your life, you must know what the people around you (commonly known as ‘friends and loved ones’) like and dislike. Perhaps not necessarily their favourite colours, but whether or not they like gender-tailored presents, say (pink for girls, blue for boys, that kind of thing). Whether they like you to reflect their age stereotype or not (no makeup, jewellery or active sportswear for the over-fifties, that kind of thing). If they like a particular breed of dog, do they really want fridge magnets, coasters, scarves and whatever covered with pictures of that breed?

If you really haven’t noticed, now’s the time to start. If you don’t know enough about someone to buy them a present they’ll like, there’s a serious deficiency in your life. You have people you love and you don’t know enough about them. Cue a New Year’s resolution…

If you need to buy a present right now, do some detective work. Look round (or think about) their home and the way they live. Have you been buying pastel-coloured things for years for someone whose home is decorated in monochrome or bright primary colours? Have you been buying photo frames for people who wouldn’t dream of having photos anywhere other than on their phone or whatever device? Think about conversations you’ve had with these friends and loved ones: what likes and dislikes have they expressed? Films and books can give you clues: are they romantic in their choices, or fantasy-based, or is it fast-paced thrillers or detective stories? Children’s names can be clues: are these people who go along with the majority or lean towards the fantastic and/or idiosyncratic?

Be careful, though. Some people are not sufficiently brutal or assured or pragmatic to throw out presents however much they hate them. A friend of mine, who ran a private nursery school, was given two pot plants at the end of the very first term in business by two grateful parents. She didn’t like to throw the plants out or give them away, although she loathed pot plants. The most she felt she could reasonably do was to water them with the scalding water from the hot tap. They thrived.

At the next term’s end, there were seven more pot plants to join the determined and hardy ones on the kitchen windowsill. And over the next couple of years the nursery school became a nursery in more senses than one.

So a few conversations about likes and dislikes is always the safest option.

And while you’re having conversations, you might touch on the whole subject of present-giving. Many people would rather not - but don’t quite like to say so unless someone else brings up the subject. Some people think the present is the thing and not the price; some people think precisely vice versa. Some people think ‘Secret Santa’ in families is the last word in alienation and the first in the death of family life as we know it; some people see it as the answer to all sorts of knotty present problems.

Having frank and free-ranging discussions about the things which really matter in life (and present-giving is, as you can see from the opening quotes, one of these) is truly adult, mature, and shows you’re in control of your life.

It’s actually more important even than present-giving.

Twitter: Maryon Jeane

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