Just six days to go till Christmas! Are you sorted? I think I am.
Illustration: Katy Leigh
It’s been a bit more complicated this year. First, there’s the fact that I’ve had to put up proper decorations and buy and bedeck a tree, which is the sort of arseache I normally don’t bother with, because a) it’s an arseache, b) it makes the cats go mental and c) my parents still do all that and I’m round there so much at this time of year that I feel that all my tinsel needs are adequately met without further outlay or effort on my part. But now I’ve got a 20 month old whose delight is my delight, so I’ve made the shift and provided the decorations.
Second, there are the personal politics of present-giving that only increase in complexity as the years go by. Immediate family is easy enough – my list reads:
Mum: Something From M&S, Don’t Even Bother Trying Anywhere Else As She’ll Only Pull THAT Face.
Dad: Books. Books. Oh, and some more books.
Sister: I can’t tell you, because she reads Stylist.
Best friend: She also reads Stylist, but she also has a new baby so she’ll have forgotten in 10 minutes time, let alone six days. So, a box of Aromatherapy Associates shampoo and stuff. Because one day she’s going to have time to have a shower again and I want it to be a good one.
Husband: Whatever I’ve ruined in the wash this year (so far: two jumpers, one set of cufflinks, a wallet and some – um, formerly – white underwear).
Child: The toys at the bottom of his toybox, which he hasn’t reached since last Christmas. And a big red wooden bus, because I just don’t spend enough of my life already singing that the wheels on the bus go round and sodding round.
But for wider family and friends, it’s tricky. You want to get something personal but not too personal (I bought some lovely knickers for an aunt once. There was just this terrible silence. Never again.) Something they wouldn’t buy themselves but that they are still going to use and love. Something that’s not mean but is still a good use of your budget. My friend Sali has the perfect rule for this, which is always to buy the smallest thing for your money – so if you have £20 to spend on someone, don’t buy a basket of cheap toiletries, get them one Chanel nail varnish or a Chantecaille lipstick instead. Which is fine if you have her exquisite taste and the strength of character to resist the charms of a keg of cheap bath gel that you know will at least get someone clean, even if the colour makes them look like a bilious drunk.
This year, many of us will also have to factor in new questions like: who has lost his or her job (or is battening down the hatches ahead of cuts in hours and salaries in 2013, when the Chancellor’s grand non-spending plans will really kick in) and whether this means you should be extra-lavish in your gifts to them, in recognition of these hard times. Or whether you should spend less in order to avoid embarrassing them if they’ve had to cut back on their own present-buying.
And if you’ve lost your job, you have to calculate who will understand if you cut back or don’t buy them a present, and who will react badly. And although you know the answer is, “Well, if they react badly, they’re not real friends, so don’t buy them anything,” in the real world, you end up giving more to the people who deserve it least and least to those who deserve it most. G- as Bridget Jones used to say -aaahh!
Then, after a hard day’s shopping, I slumped on the sofa, started zapping through the channels and saw an advert full of gorgeous, sleeping children. What was it for, I wondered, as half-moons of absurdly long baby eyelashes met little cheeks and tiny lips formed perfect baby pouts? Night-time nappies to keep their cherubic bums rash-free? Teething gel? Follow-on milk? Then the camera pulled out on each one, and they turned out to be sleeping on filthy slumhouse floors and pavements, and waking, with just the movements my boy makes, and each pair of eyes that those absurd lashes framed gazed out hopelessly at another day of suffering.
It simplified everything. I don’t mean it stopped me trying to be thoughtful about what I give to whom and why, but it stopped me worrying about whether everyone on my list had “enough”. I love Christmas but I know that I – and we, I think – get carried away on the Yule tide and I – we – need these occasional reminders to stop, consider ourselves and regain our perspective.
So, I’m done with shopping for the year and the fee for this column is going to that advert’s makers, Save The Children. Because they were real children and they were sleeping on pavements and I’m looking at my son playing with a bauble from Mum’s tree and we don’t need anything else."