It’s not always better to give
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’