Warning – this column features an unseasonal mention of the festive C-Word. For those who like to keep it packaged up until the arrival of December itself, please cover your eyes now.
Have you ever asked your loved ones what they’d like for Christmas, only to be told ‘nothing’? Yet, we still go to the shops, trying to second-guess what would make them happy on Christmas Day. We browse against the backdrop of thoughts and conversations, either lost in the excitement of festive shopping or desperate to tick another present off the list.
‘Ooh, that jumper would look nice.’
‘She could probably do with another pair of cosy slippers.’
‘How about that gift box of smellies?’
And so it goes on, in every town and in every city up and down the country. Decisions, decisions. Millions of us looking for that ‘perfect thing’ or a ‘that’ll do’, as we take part in the annual race towards Christmas to stock up and get things wrapped and ready for the 25th of December and its festive Lucky Dip.
But what if your friends or relatives really don’t want anything for Christmas? What if they’d much prefer you to save your time and money instead of giving them something. Would you respect their wishes or would the guilt kick in? Would you wonder if they really meant it or think that they were just being kind or at the other extreme, a festive killjoy?
Having grown up with the mantra ‘It’s better to give than receive’, I always associated giving presents as an indication of generosity and kindness. In my younger days, I foolishly connected the measure of generosity with the amount spent but in my wisdom soon learnt that it really is ‘the thought that counts’ as opposed to the sum that comes off the credit card.
However, there eventually came a time when I began to question more deeply the act of giving gifts.
That time came when my mother insisted that she didn’t want or need anything.
But did I really listen?
No. Instead of buying her frivolous gifts of jewellery and other ‘nice-to-have accessories’, I’d go shopping for ‘practical things’ that I thought would be to her taste. Regular readers may even remember a previous tale that one year I ran out of ideas and adopted a gorilla Anyway, I finally got the message and started thinking of things we could do together instead. However, I still wondered whether she was just being her usual modest self.
It was only when she died and I was faced with clearing my mother’s belongings did it fully hit me with clarity. It came as I opened the wardrobe in the spare room. There inside was a pile of old Christmas gifts, stacked waist-high. Sets of matching scarves and gloves, pretty washbags, jewellery, unworn slippers, umbrellas and toiletry gift sets from department stores. This wasn’t her Christmas shopping that she’d managed to do early. These were presents from friends and family that still had their tags on from Christmases past. She would have felt ungrateful passing them on to charity shops or exchanging them.
These days I feel the same as my mother and I’m grateful I can celebrate the festive season without lots of stuff. And I don’t have an issue donating unwanted gifts to charity. However, that’s not the point.
If you have loved ones who’d genuinely prefer a more minimalist Christmas, now is the time to listen before you hit the shops. Don’t think it’s ingratitude. They’ll have their own reasons. Maybe it’s financial pride. Maybe it’s for environmental reasons and the waste of resources that go into an unwanted gift. Maybe they really do have enough.
Or maybe they just don’t like your taste.
Whatever it is, don’t let it be a bitter pill to swallow. There’s too much at stake.
For those who genuinely want nothing, actually, overcoming our awkwardness and respecting their wishes can be the most generous gift of all.