The problem with the gift-giving ritual is that we’ve never quite resolved the uneasy gap between the two rationales for doing it.
If me buying you a present on your birthday, and you later doing the same for me is meant to be a way of increasing the number of desirable objects in both our lives, then it’s obviously hideously inefficient.
Generally speaking, I’m much better then you are at knowing what things I haven’t got that I might want, and although once in a while you might hit the holy grail of present giving, the ‘I’d never have got it for myself, but now I have it I love it!’ gift;
I would say that each of those is offset by at least a score of ill-fitting jumpers or duplicate copies of The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
It’s simply not a viable economic model.
I was once given a voucher for a grooming session at a men’s spa.
I suppose opening the envelope to find that inside was less upsetting than seeing the shredded remains of a fifty pound note, but the effect was identical.
‘But no,’ you will be saying, assuming you have sportingly chosen to play along with the Gradgrindish persona
I am adopting for hopefully comic effect,
‘of course that’s not what gift-giving is for - it’s to show someone we have remembered them, that we care enough to want to make them happy, and that we know them well enough to be able to try.
Even if the attempt fails, it’s important that it is made - what would you have instead, a solemn Christmas exchange of bank details?’
Well, no, obviously I get that it’s the thought that counts, and that after a certain period of trotting up and down the aisles of Waterstone’s worrying that whatever you choose will make you look like a total dick, you have discharged your duty of thought-bestowing, and are free to buy another copy of The Bonesetter’s Daughter for the recipient to fail to get round to reading, like everyone else.
But if that’s the system, why do some people ring you before your birthday to ask what you’d like?
Particularly people who know you well.
Close friends and family who feel they know you well enough to be able to admit that they don’t know you well enough to know what you’d like.
Surely that’s a disastrous reversion to system A: presents as a way of conferring monetary value.
It’s not the thought that counts if you’re the one being asked to have the thought!
! In fact, it becomes a chore, because naturally you want to please the giver by thinking of something you’ll really like for them to give you, so you ask to be allowed to think about it, and then inevitably when they phone back a week later you haven’t thought about it at all, and you feel guilty, and… this is madness, surely!
This is what I mean about the gap between the two systems.
If it’s the monetary value that counts,…