Friday, 04 December 2015

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 4 December

Do your friends cringe at the Christmas presents you bestow upon them? Thomas Blaikie offers some suggestions

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
My oldest friend always criticises my Christmas presents and accuses me of getting them from charity shops. This year I thought I’d really try to improve. But I’m completely stuck for ideas. Can you help?
Doris Sydenham, Reading

Dear Doris,
How mean of your friend! But I rather suspect, from what you say, that there may be more than a grain of truth. You do harvest from charity shops, don’t you? Just like June Cut-Deeping, my oldest friend’s mother’s best friend from the war. Every Christmas, June would offer the same box of yellowing men’s hankies with unknown initials; Vera would say, ‘Your presents are a disgrace,’ and give it back to her, ready for the whole cycle to begin again the following year.

But presents are impossible. You’ve got to find something that the recipient wouldn’t normally buy for themselves, something sufficiently special (but within budget) yet it musn’t be gimmicky or a pointless novelty item. And although different and a surprise, it’s got to be something they’ll like or actually use. Some people say the best presents are something someone didn’t think they would like but they do – which is even more of a challenge to the giver.

How about sticking plasters that look like bacon rashers, or baconflavoured toothpaste or a defibrillator that doubles as a toaster (so useful)? Or a mask for office use that gives the impression that your eyes are open when they are not? These items do exist and can be purchased.

No, Christmas presents break down into routine categories – food, bathroom, kitchen, items for the home, wine, perfume, scarves, gloves and hats, stationery, books. Don’t be afraid to be boring. All that matters is that your present is the nicest you can afford and that you’ve done your best to match the gift to the person. Even so, no matter how well you think you know someone, there’s no guarantee they’ll like it. Really good soap, though – how can anyone avoid using that, even if only in their guest bathroom? Or best olive oil? Or a lovely cushion? Find a special shop or department store in which you have confidence. But remember that charity shops are not necessarily a disgrace. Even try an antiques shop.

It strikes me this year that the real problem with presents is not the giver but the receiver. How often do we take one look at the gift (perhaps a hot-water-bottle cover in fun-fur) and instantly say, ‘Oh, I’ll never use that.’ Sometimes our attitude is shaped by a mean-spirited mistrust of the person giving. We’re too quick to dismiss, we don’t want to change, to try new things, to rearrange our kitchen or sitting room even slightly.

So my Christmas message to you this year is: give by all means, but above all receive generously.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT… Last-Minute Invitations

The great theme at this time of year is ‘I’m not free, I can’t possibly come. I’ve got so many functions.’ But once some very famous people lived opposite me – and they never went anywhere, especially in December. People are a great deal more free than they let on. It’s one of life’s secrets. Hurl out a last-minute invitation. I promise you’ll be crammed to the rafters. An impromptu gathering, especially in those inert days just after Christmas, is much preferable to a huge vehicular affair planned for months. Your guests will be pinching themselves with delight that they’re there at all.

Here is a perfect way to get together with people in your neighbourhood or those on their own at Christmas. After hours of telly, a little activity is just what they, and you, need. As for food and drink, you can do wonders with a bit of smoked salmon, an egg option of some kind, first-class crisps and cheesy things… avoid acrid cold bangers and damp paste sandwiches. Festive variety, even if from Tesco, is all you need.

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