In forty years’ marriage, my friend’s Dad, a surgeon allergic to shopping, gave his wife not one present. He adored her, and their lively sex life was a fact of which their kids would have preferred to know less. Yet the gift embargo lasted until their youngest son (30) called it a disgrace. You may think the Dad is amazing, but his wife’s self-possession is what impresses me. The Roman historian Titus Livy wrote, ‘A woman’s mind is affected by the meanest gifts’ – meaning, it costs little to buy female favour. But this happily married couple show that feelings about presents are fluid, and always an index of a relationship’s insecurities.
‘The manner of giving is worth more than the gift,’ claimed Pierre Corneille – in a play called The Liar. In reality, gifts cause upset because they are supposed to embody the giver’s esteem for the recipient. Hence it is little consolation to hear Mum say, ‘It’s the thought that counts’, when you open a half-eaten tube of Polos from your aunt on 25 December, as a mate of mine did, more than once.
As each exchange is a diplomatic act, similar rules apply to presents as to flattery. When Gordon Brown welcomed Barack Obama to Britain with a pen holder whittled from timbers of a sister ship of the Resolute, out of which the Presidential desk in the White House is made, plus a seven-volume, first edition Churchill biography, Obama gave him 25 DVDs including Psycho. Commentators scorned Obama’s ‘insult’, but the error was Brown’s. His presents were too great to be returned.
If gifts betoken love, in practice, they often say more about our budget, the relative length of queues in Selfridges and Superdrug, or our family etiquette. Indeed, a litmus test of new in-laws at Christmas is how they read local custom. My first time all gifts ‘for me’, in thrice-recycled paper, were ‘for me and him’. The highlight? A wooden spoon. Was I gracious? As if. But I have since learnt that so deep is my mother-in-law’s aversion to receiving gifts, to her, something useful, costing pennies, is the best imaginable.
I still love finding the perfect gift. The downside is that I am a pain to buy for. Which is why the best gift my husband and I shared was last Christmas. A gift-free, guiltless week in Egypt.
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