It’s not al­ways bet­ter to give

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator -

CHRISTMAS shop­ping?’ the as­sis­tant asked con­ver­sa­tion­ally, but quite sur­pris­ingly, given that I was buy­ing a box of Ble­pha­clean eye wipes. ‘Um, no,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t started yet.’ There was a long pause while she held back the wipes un­til I recog­nised my cue. The penny dropped. ‘Have you?’ ‘Bought and wrapped,’ she said tri­umphantly. ‘She does it in Septem­ber,’ groaned the phar­ma­cist good-na­turedly be­hind her.

‘The only prob­lem with do­ing it so early,’ she leaned to­wards me con­spir­a­to­ri­ally, ‘is that, when peo­ple find out, they ask if you’ll do theirs for them.’ ‘I don’t have to do much,’ I said. I’m not sure if this came out as smug or glum.

Se­cret Santa has been in­tro­duced. The idea was floated, the peo­ple voted and the de­ci­sion was taken: we will stop spend­ing a for­tune on stuff that may lan­guish unloved in a cor­ner of the sit­ting room and will re­place this with each per­son in our large fam­ily buy­ing one present for one per­son who there­fore only re­ceives one gift, which is clearly a good idea. ‘But it’s wildly un­fair,’ I ex­claim when Zam re­turns home with the new­world-or­der di­rec­tive. ‘Some peo­ple will have had decades of presents, but oth­ers stop get­ting them at 12.’

He shrugs—he couldn’t be less con­cerned and thinks I’m be­hav­ing like a five year old. I am be­hav­ing like a five year old. I’m the youngest—christmas brings it out in me.

I speak to a mem­ber of the other half of the fam­ily. ‘So we’re not giv­ing presents to each other this year, is that right? I can’t be­lieve what I’m hear­ing.’ ‘But this was in­tro­duced last year,’ she says. ‘Don’t you re­mem­ber?’

I don’t re­mem­ber be­cause I made a se­cret pact with one brother to keep giv­ing each other a pa­per­back and I sent my sis­ter sev­eral pots of chut­ney as re­venge for her hav­ing dreamt up this ap­palling idea.

Ex­plain­ing my mis­giv­ings about Se­cret Santa to two friends, I lie: ‘I only mind for the youngest.’ One says I should get over it, some­one has to be youngest, it’s a mi­nor down­side, he re­ally won’t no­tice (be­yond un­likely). The other says her hair­dresser solved the prob­lem when it arose in her fam­ily: the un­der-18s are ex­empt from Se­cret Santa. I rush home to tell Zam about this bril­liant com­pro­mise and then head off to the prison.

‘I’m so thrilled,’ says my fel­low tea lady. ‘We’ve in­tro­duced Santa this year. It makes me look for­ward to Christmas.’ ‘What is go­ing on?’ I ex­plode. Her fam­ily has de­volved the en­tire thing to a third party, who’s drawn up the list of who gives to whom. There is a price limit. She’s bought enough pa­per for ev­ery­one who will use it on Christmas Eve and thus ev­ery­thing will be iden­ti­cally wrapped, main­tain­ing the anonymity of all givers. ‘Things just got so out of hand,’ she ex­plains. ‘Even the dog was giv­ing gifts.’

‘So we’re not do­ing presents,’ I state, crossly, on the tele­phone to my sis­ter with whom we’re spend­ing Christmas. ‘Well,’ she wob­bles, ‘I sup­pose as we’re see­ing each other…’ ‘No, no, no,’ I say, en­joy­ing this now. ‘You said no presents, so it’s no presents.’

As we speak, a de­liv­ery van drives up and a par­cel is taken in by Zam, who dis­ap­pears. ‘That was your present,’ he tells me. ‘I won­der if I should show it to you now be­cause I’m not sure about it.’ Of course, you should, I tell him. Def­i­nitely. Show me. Now! He de­cides not to. ‘But you can’t tell me my present is here and of­fer to show me and then not show me!’

I stamp my feet and leave the house to buy Ad­vent cal­en­dars. ‘Christmas,’ says the woman in the cal­en­dar shop and I know what’s com­ing next. ‘It’s all about the chil­dren isn’t it?’

Things got out of hand. Even the dog was giv­ing gifts’

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