The dilemma My father complained to my wife that the Christmas presents I bought for him and his partner weren’t good enough. He is 66. I bought them some artisan chocolate, which he described as “broken chocolate” because it came wrapped in a clear plastic bag (it was from a small local business that hand-wraps items), and a handmade candle that was called “crappy” by his partner. Given that they’re both wealthy, retired, own three houses and enjoy numerous holidays each year, should I feel bad that I don’t push the boat out in buying expensive gifts for them? Should I have bought the grumpy old git an iPad or a drone? Their presents to us were the usual haul of thoughtless jumpers and biscuits, and wrong-size clothes for the grandchildren they never see, all bought in the same supermarket. Thanks. Sorry. I’m still angry! I bet you get loads of letters like this at this time of year.
Mariella replies Yes, there have been a couple! I hear you, honestly I do. But, as we both know, this whole Christmas thing is way out of control. Your father is clearly an optimist, expecting more than a token on what’s become a seasonal retail opportunity. By early January it feels as if the whole nation is waking up to the mother of all hangovers – bank accounts depleted and surrounded by piles of discarded junk. Or is that just me? The only people who can afford to be rubbing their hands with glee are the sellers, who are so busy comparing how much people squandered last season to this season that I’m not sure even they gain much pleasure out of the experience.
Family members have retreated into their respective corners, licking wounds and resolving not to go through the same torture again next year, bank statements lie around unopened among tardy Christmas cards (the ones only sent in response to cards received) and turkey has disappeared overnight from every menu in the land. We’re back at work, poorer, fatter and seemingly none the wiser!
For most of December we’ve rushed around, elbows out, grasping at an assortment of useless items with which to express I’m not sure what exactly, to a motley crew of friends, family, colleagues and godchildren, in celebration of an event that dwindling numbers believe in. No wonder the only Christmas tradition that still flourishes is the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol. It’s the perfect fuel for the in-house bickering in every house as reunited adult children resume their childhood pecking order and siblings count each other’s gifts for signs of preferential treatment. No wonder many of us wake up on 2 January exhausted, ill and in the grip of a mysterious amnesia, wondering what the hell happened to the past three weeks.
You’ve written to the wrong person if you’re expecting a pat on the back for playing your part, or an attempt to evaluate whose gifts are the least thoughtful. Surely you’ll admit that your father’s lack of imagination seems to have been passed down? Choosing between a random sweater and an impersonal bag of chocolate, no matter how impressively artisanal, is not really giving me much to work with. But that’s old news. Let’s look ahead and, in time-honoured tradition, resolve to do things better next year.
You don’t have to be an agony aunt to spot the underlying resentment in your missive. There’s clearly history to your grievances and a sense you feel unappreciated and, perhaps, undervalued. I’m not going to suggest either you or your father tries harder next year but instead that you abandon the charade altogether. When you’re down to doing supermarket sweeps for ugly jumpers there really isn’t much to mourn the passing of. How about a resolution to make the festivities a period of quality rather than quarrelling time? If you start your campaign now you’ve got 12 months in which to achieve real progress.
Calm ruffled feathers by admitting your presents were rubbish and invite your father and his partner to do likewise. Then suggest you all make a donation to a charity of your choice next year, except for tokens for the grandchildren, for which you’ll helpfully provide an inexpensive list of suggestions. That’s the easy part!
Repairing relations and trying to achieve a less fractious family dynamic will require lashings of goodwill from all concerned. But as that’s what Christmas is meant to be about, a good place to start might be at one of their three houses on 25 December 2019. Having removed the pressure of gift-buying, they might leap at the chance to host a festive bash. You and your wife might even get to put your feet up.
You may think I’m delusional, but at this point in the calendar I’m full of fervent resolutions. Right now I truly believe we can change the world and the best place to start is our own living rooms. It’s important to have a dream, especially one that elevates you above the realm of bickering about presents. Swept along on a wave of good cheer, you could achieve the idyll of increased family harmony – without it costing a penny.