The politics of present-giving: from writing lists to unwanted gifts and how to approach the in-laws

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Harriet Hall
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If I were offered a deal with the devil, the terms of which required me to pass on my birthday, Easter, Halloween and even a summer holiday, to ensure a lifetime of Christmases, I wouldn’t hesitate.

From carefully selecting card-making supplies in the John Lewis haberdashery, to curating my wrapping paper from the mega Paperchase in Tottenham Court Road; like an over-excited toddler, the entire Christmas season thrills me.

Even a trip to the supermarket – usually the low-point of every week – becomes a veritable delight during Christmas, when the 'big four' crack-out chive-infused cheeses and giant bags of nuts for double the price of normal nuts (I’m certain they taste nicer when they arrive in the little red bags).

I genuinely cannot get enough of it: polyester reindeer jumpers, ice skating, crackers; the lot.

Yet, despite my juvenile delight during the season, Christmas remains the most stressful and politically-charged time of the year.

From the cut-throat decision of deciding which friends you can squeeze into your tiny flat for drinks, to negotiating whether to spend the big day at yours or the in-laws; Christmas is more political than party conference season, or the weeks preceding a general election.

It’s an achievement if we survive the season at all.

If you are lucky enough to make it to Christmas day, the last thing you need is to trip at the final hurdle: the presents. Here, I have laid out my rules to pilot the politics of present giving. From writing lists, to returning unwanted gifts, and how to approach those distant relatives.

Take heed.

1. Write a list, or forever hold your peace

I am a firm advocate of the Christmas list.

Before you say anything about how lists nurture greed and materialism, eradicate the element of surprise and exist on the assumption that you're going to get any presents, get what you're given etc. here's why you're wrong:

Let’s be honest, the dream of buying the perfect, thoughtful gift only applies to a handful of our recipients, while the rest fall into the ‘grab-whatever-you-can-find-that’s-marginally-acceptable-before-giving-up-and-collapsing-into-a-heap’ category. 

A list, sent to a person early enough, avoids all of this: everybody wins.

Additionally, if you send a long enough list, knowing you’d never possibly receive even close to everything on it, then it’s a little bit like gift roulette. The element of the surprise is preserved.

My letter to the fat guy in the red suit has changed, somewhat, over the years. Today, it’s no longer meticulously hand-written and dipped in glitter, it’s an email with a series of links to items, accompanied by precise details about sizes and colours and a disclaimer saying that, of course I don’t expect anything but, were I to be so lucky, I’d like one of the following, please.

It might seem like I’m sucking the magic out of the whole event but a) An email is undeniably a more efficient means of communication than a letter to the North Pole (come on, Royal Mail is simply not to be trusted) b) Sending links allows Father Christmas to complete his Christmas shopping with minimal stress c) It leaves little room for error.

Which brings me on to my next point.

2. Returning gifts is OK

I tend to give myself and others strict rules when it comes to presents because there is nothing worse than knowing that someone’s time and hard-earned money has gone into buying you something utterly heinous, that you wouldn’t be seen dead in.

Even if I never tell the person, I will always know inside that they wasted their money and will feel like a lying Christmas cheat. 

Although it might sound ungrateful, I genuinely believe that returning or exchanging a gift can be the decent thing to do. Trying to feign glee when opening a terrible present feels ruder, to me, than simply saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

To pretend to your mum - who has breastfed you, wiped your arse and generally seen you at your absolute lowest ebb - that you simply adore the Landsend crochet jumper she bought for you is to deeply underestimate her. She’s dealt with worse. She can handle it.

Returns are fine within the family or among close friends; encouraged, even. But the rule of return does shift depending on the gift-giver.

For anyone outside of your immediate family, you've got to suck it up and say you love it. If you simply cannot bear it because you’ve applied the Mary Kondo technique all over your apartment and the thought of housing something you’ll never use brings you out in hives, whizz it over to your local charity shop: one person’s trash...

3. The no-present pact

Who to buy presents for can be a problematic area. Do you buy for your sister’s boyfriend, your boyfriend’s parent, your distant cousins who are coming to visit?

It can be pretty awkward when you think that you’re not really ‘there’ with a person, only to find out that they think you are when they present you with a thoughtful gift, while you thank them profusely and mutter something about the shambolic office post room under your breath.  

To avoid these situations, a no-present pact is ideal. My parents implemented theirs a few years back and, every year they have a big boozy meal with their mates instead, not worrying about who may or may not want a wine decanter (clue: no one). Christmas has since improved for them both, immeasurably.

When it comes to the in-laws, unless you are very close, it’s best to stay away from presents or opt-in with your other ‘alf. Otherwise they'll hate you for bringing crappy clutter into their lives, or judge you for trying to suck-up. 

A recent Debenhams survey revealed that most people are already applying this logic, as half of all mothers-in-law are apparently ignored at Christmas by their offspring’s partners. And why not? For the in-laws, they’re just pleased if it’s their year to host their offspring: their present is your presence. And, if you must, a bottle or a box of chocolates will do just fine.

4. When is it acceptable to give money as a gift?

Unless you’re a parent, a grandparent or an auntie, giving money is crass and impersonal.

When the aforementioned give you money it’s a dream  – an opportunity to splurge on a new outfit, pay your landlord that overdue rent or even pop it into your ‘savings’ (aka the takeaway dipping pot).

But from anyone else, money is a vulgar, offensive gift, that says either: “I'm a rich heartless bastard” or, “I don’t care enough about you to make an effort.” Either way: not great.

That’s before we’ve begun to think about what format the cash comes in. A cheque: what is this, 1999? A bank transfer: tax rebate. Hard cash: awkward city.

What’s even the point in giving someone money? If they buy you a gift in return, you’ve effectively just paid for your own present, and if they give you money too, then you’re simply exchanging bank details. Where’s the magic in that?

Giving money is like a gift card from the bank of IDGAF.

5. Say your thank yous

Whatever the outcome of your Christmas (Crochet sweaters ‘n’ all), sending a hand written thank you note is non-negotiable. Write down who gave you what and send them out on Boxing Day.

It takes a second and it’s the very least you can do.

No, a text doesn’t count.