There is a specific constipated care with which a relative, upon opening your present, smiles, “You really shouldn’t have.” Their eyes widen and fall at the same time as if their social skills are prolapsing, and their voice falters as they are the most honest they’ve been all year.
I have seen this face more times than I care to remember, yet every year it stings. Because I’m bad at presents, both giving and receiving. Mainly because there is nothing I want, but also (I just shouted for confirmation from my boyfriend in the kitchen) because I’m so incredibly tight. Poor guy, he is always chasing the success of his first gift to me – a cardboard replica he’d made of a Chanel bracelet I’d ripped out of The Face.
Unfortunately, he set himself up to fail – it was unbeatable. There is not enough goodwill in the whole of 2016 to enable a man to sit down for a whole afternoon with a glue gun and scissors, even if it is for someone they really quite like.
As I unwrap any present, my heart beats fast with the anxiety that it might have cost over £15. And then that I will be responsible for getting the giver’s money’s worth – I can’t help but visualize their personal finances in my head like a NatWest app. But all presents come heavy with expectation. The worst was a red hardbacked notebook my late grandma gave me when I was 10, saying: “This is from the post office and was very expensive, so I only want you to use the pen in it when you’re going to write something brilliant.” It remains empty.
Christmas presents are liabilities in starry paper, they’re a family test, emotional landfill
Giving is even harder. In the olden days, I’d introduce people to my favorite TV shows with a grand boxset of DVDs, or show off with an out-of-print film, sourced from eBay. Now you can just message them a link to Netflix and they’ll reply with a thumbs up – there is nothing to be unwrapped.
It felt oddly prophetic to stumble upon Santacon in London last weekend – the annual pub crawl for bearded losers. Every year across the world, thousands of people dress up as Santa and march through cities retching “Ho ho ho” into their held-out hats. The effect of thousands of people wearing Santa costumes, though, is that the essence of Santa – the sense that he is a benevolent gift-giver, a lap-offerer, a person obese for only the right reasons – disappears. In its place, there is a mob.
Standing on the tube among pissed Santas I thought of the famous deindividuation experiment, where the number of electric shocks participants gave their subjects doubled when they were dressed in hooded costumes, and I wondered what would happen if those participants had strapped big white beards on, too. Caught on that platform, it became all too clear. A sackful of Santas can’t give; they take. Which only strengthens my case to do away with the horror of presents. If even Santa appears to have given up giving, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
The problem is that there is no way to win in a culture that correlates great gifts with great love. Even when you’re employed and only tiptoeing into your overdraft, too many Januaries have begun with bath bombs undetonated but relationships exploded.
If only we could all agree that presents are rubbish. The idea that the subtext of every conversation is expected to be funneled into a virtual gift list makes me never want to chat again. Shopping is an art, like everything else. There is no reason to think that just because the high street is alight with reindeer we will suddenly become experts; that a year of listening will suddenly be carefully condensed into the single item our brother will cherish, making him rethink the decade you lost touch, that dark time you think of as his Leeds period. And that this item will be available lunchtime in Debenhams.
Christmas presents are never just presented. They are responsibilities in the starry paper, they’re a family test, emotional landfill. They’re books that were never written to be read, or pass-age statements, or irony off the internet, or something that means too much, or jewelry you’ll die in to make a point. They put pressure on us to express our feelings through the medium of searching through Amazon on a Sunday night, and I wish they’d die. Also don’t get me started on “Christmas drinks”.