Posts Tagged ‘presents’

I’ve never been a particularly good present person. Happy to receive presents, of course, but a bit lacking in inspiration when it comes to thinking of things for others. As with everything, I try hard, my intentions are good, but I am liable to fall short.

It is true that I sometimes surprise myself with wonderful ideas, and make a mental note that such-and-such would be ideal for so-and-so’s birthday six months hence. Sadly, the mental note, as with 99 percent of things committed to memory, promptly flies straight back out of the tiny slot through which it entered, leaving me bereft, as ever, once that birthday comes round.

Christmas is another trauma altogether. I have found over the years that my only way to cope in respect of the ‘what to get for whom’ dilemma is to place myself in a state of suspended animation until the 24th and then panic, big-time.

This time of year is particularly difficult because there are so many birthdays of friends and family that my inspiration drains away faster than you can say gift wrap.

One of my problems is that if I hit upon a formula, I dare not let go. This means, for example, that our poor daughter-in-law is almost certain to end up with something to keep her warm. Theirs is a very cold house so my instinct is always to wrap her up. Her stocks of thick, cosy hats, socks, jumpers and scarves could probably kit out a Polar expedition team.

It’s always worse when the luckless person on the receiving end of one of my gifts is a brilliantly inspired present-giver themselves. My sister-in-law, Geoff’s sister, for instance, just has a gift for it, if you’ll forgive the wholly intended pun.

She always gets it right. What, then, to give her for her birthday this year, after so many lack-lustre efforts on our part in the past? Geoff and I pooled our thoughts for so long that despair set in.

I know, I suddenly screeched. A voucher! Do you mean a book token, asked Geoff. No! A voucher for a day out! We’ll take her for a day out and fill it with surprises.

Geoff designed the voucher and put it in with the birthday card. We got her favourite cousins on side, arranged a date and planned the outing.

It was a great success, though I can take little credit for it. We picked up the bemused birthday girl from her home and drove her through the stunning Dorset countryside to a lunch rendezvous with the cousins, who she had not seen for a few years. They were lying in wait, their presence still a secret to her.

Surprise, surprise! Oh, the hugs, the happiness and the huge, huge smiles. It was wonderful to behold, and to be a part of.

Lunch followed, with not a gap in the chatter, and then we migrated south to West Bay. The plan had been to take a post-prandial walk, but the weather was dire and so we did the only thing Brits can do under these circumstances: we sat on a bench and ate ice-creams.

The wind may have blasted our faces, sent our hair all over the place, whipped flecks of ice-cream on to our clothes, but it didn’t matter. It was daft and wonderful and utterly memorable.

Our photos of the day only need one caption: Five Go Mad in Dorset.


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We’ve reached the point of no return. Much as I might try and convince myself there are still several weeks until Christmas, even I know it is now only a matter of hours away.

I should be ready by August, I whimper at anyone unwise enough to ask me if I’m ready for the family’s arrival on Christmas Eve. Let’s be honest, I will never be ready, however hard I try. I don’t really know when I was last ready for anything, even just leaving the house to go shopping. I’d still happily nip back in the door for a final sweep and check round, just to be sure I’ve got everything (which I usually haven’t).

Whatever the occasion, there’s always something to be fussed and worried over at the last minute, and of course that’s exactly how it’s going to be right up to the family’s arrival.

What’s the alternative? Do I sit back and relax with a mince pie and a jug of mulled wine at my elbow? I think not. That’s not my style. Well, the goodies might be but the sitting back and relaxing isn’t, I regret to say. Mine is more the flap and panic mode of operation, fine-tuned over the years into a kind of frantic below-surface paddling. Yes, like a duck, but without that enviable air of insouciance.

Hearing from my friend Carla this week made me feel better about my shortcomings. She told me that she had, somewhat rashly, organised a switching-on of lights ceremony for all the houses in her cul-de-sac. Everyone joined in and gathered in her front garden to enjoy – yes, of course – mince pies and mulled wine, which Carla dispensed.

All went swimmingly until the countdown and the moment for the lights to come on: everyone’s lit up on cue except Carla’s.

The problem was duly sorted and the awkward memory duly blotted out with more mulled wine.

The next day, perhaps unwisely, since the rotten-luck fairy was probably still hanging around, Carla set about making a batch of her legendary marmalade. Sure enough, a stray elbow set a tray of eight newly filled jars crashing to the ground, spewing their sticky contents across the kitchen floor.

I’ve cleaned it up a dozen times but I’m still sticking to the floor wherever I walk, she said. Happily, she’s able to ignore it now as she’s off to London for Christmas. I am sure the residue of a marmalade tsunami will be easier to cope with once she’s been fortified by several days of festive fun and frolics. Or being away from home, anyway.

Geoff and I managed to fight our giant tree into place in the sitting-room after which I played a blinder on the art director front, creating a triumph of seasonal bad taste with a deadly combination of gee-gaws and baubles and zero artistic vision. It really is a winner.

However, our tree, strung about though it is with bits and bobs as old as time, has something particularly topical about it this year.

Geoff noticed that the ancient, tatty angel that he was entrusted to reach up and balance on the topmost spike (aided by a judicious squish of Blu-Tack), sports a familiar wild sweep of blond hair under its crooked halo.

We looked at each other in horror. There’s no escaping the terrible truth: we’ve got Donald Trump in a white net dress sitting on top of our Christmas tree.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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The to-do lists are long, the ticks against the items are few. By this means I know I am making pathetically slow progress in the run-up to Christmas.

It’s the same every year and I refuse to get in a lather over it. Not much of a lather, anyway. Not yet.

The small amount of shopping I have done has been achieved locally and with notable success, I’m happy to say.

I have only once ventured off limits and ordered something online, and that was because I was seduced by an email advising me of an unrepeatable offer on a bagatelle board.

I bought one last year for the grand-boys and they love it. Time for one for the grand-girls, I decided, especially at this bargain price. They’re really far too young for it, but it’s a family game so their parents can enjoy it while little fingers grow and the competitive spirit is nurtured.

I enjoyed a frisson of smugness when I ordered the bagatelle board in early October. One tick on the to-do list already!

By mid-November it hadn’t arrived so I rang the company and was told the boards were ‘in manufacture’, which I translated as ‘being made’, and I should have received an email advising me of the delayed delivery.

I haven’t received one, I said. Oh, the girl said, carefully not apologising, and adding that my board would be with me by the end of the week.

It wasn’t, but it came at the end of the following week. It was a large and heavy parcel and the delivery man gratefully handed it over to Geoff while I scrawled ‘Sdfdjlpgkl’ with a piece of blunt plastic on to a blank screen, a curious procedure that proved the item was now in our safe keeping.

Five days later, another delivery man called at the door with an equally large and heavy parcel. Geoff dealt with it all this time, inscribing ‘Gfjghfjklq’ on the screen and waiting for the man to leave before calling out to ask me what I’d ordered this time.

I’ve ordered nothing, I assured him. That’s odd, he said, because I haven’t ordered anything either.

We checked on the label that it really was intended for Hill Towers and noticed that while indeed it was, the sender was the same company that had supplied the bagatelle board.

Then we tumbled to the fact that as both parcels were the same size and weight, this second one undoubtedly contained another bagatelle board.

Now we are up to our necks in a First World problem. Do we unwrap the parcel and double-check its contents, thus leaving ourselves with a re-wrapping palaver if the thing has to be returned? Do we heave it along to a post office, queue for 45 minutes and just hand it over and say ‘Help’, with a tearful whimper? Do we call Ms Unhelpful at the firm that sent it and ask her to sort it out? Or do we hang to it and wait to see if any more grandchildren are born?

It reminds us of the time someone else’s case of wine was delivered to us by mistake. It took over our lives while we tried to organise its removal. During the days it sat in the hall, like an unwelcome visitor that wouldn’t budge, it bruised our shins and seriously tempted with its ‘Drink me’ allure.

Take my word for it, none of this inconvenience happens when you stay in control and do your shopping locally.

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The grandchildren are, rightly, taking priority on my list of people for whom I am seeking inspiration for Christmas presents.

As the oldest is only six, they are nowhere near the age when a wad of notes or a generous cheque will be just the thing.

These small people want, and will get, exciting parcels wrapped in bright paper embellished with ribbons and snowflakes. In fact, we oldies know that it’s the look and the feel of their presents that will excite, almost as much as what is inside.

But what is inside? Ah, that is the question. This past week I have been in close contact with those who know far better than I what the two boys (aged six and four) and the two girls (three years and nine months) would most like or need.

There is no point at all in lumbering either household with things that will disappoint the children and end up just creating clutter, hence the need for guidance. Both my daughter and my daughter-in-law rose gamely to the challenge and I was soon able to compile a list.

Admittedly, the suggested present for baby Clemmie is nothing more exciting than socks, but as her mum pointed out when I suggested it sounded rather dull: “It’s OK, honestly. She’s a baby. She needs socks.” The subtext, unspoken, was along the lines of “Clemmie’s kicked off and lost all her sister’s hand-me-down socks so we need to top up the drawer.”

Hmmm, second child syndrome. I am that child, too, damaged by years of wearing my sister’s cast-offs. Poor little Clemmie. I’ll see her right. She’ll get socks all of her very own that reflect her happy personality and I’ll find her some interesting other things that will stimulate and entertain her and help keep that sunny smile on her face.

Her big sister is to have a toy cash register – a most sophisticated-looking beast – and some board games. Oh, and books, of course, because it’s impossible not to swamp all the grandchildren with books.

So that leaves the boys, both of whom have been in a state of near meltdown since they heard the first mention of Christmas back in about September. My daughter tells me, resignation in her voice, that they don’t sleep beyond dawn because they can’t wait to leap up and open the next door in their advent calendars – which I sent them. Whoops.

Just before she falls asleep face first into her day’s work at the kitchen table, my daughter and I discuss presents for the boys. “Honestly, just a bit of Star Wars Lego,” she says, her voice growing faint.

Now look, I complain, we can’t dismiss our grand-boys so lightly. Besides, I’m still in need of therapy after entering the unfathomable world of Star Wars at the time of their birthdays in the summer.

“Can we get them a present to share because they do play together all the time?” I ask. “We wondered about a bagatelle board . . .” Cue loud expressions of approval.

So the boys – in fact, all of us, because it’s such an inclusive game – will be pinging ball bearings with increasing degrees of skill as Christmas rolls into the New Year and far beyond.

Mindful of how mature the boys are now, I shall need to practise bagatelle before battle is joined or I could find myself humiliated – and I can’t have that.

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AN anguished message came via email from my friend Issy this week. She’s obsessively organised about Christmas, always putting me to shame with her lists and orderly planning.

Mind you, she doesn’t have much to plan, or not compared with me. She buys precisely one Christmas present: a country-green jumper for her husband, the same one each year – that is, the same style of jumper and the same husband, as long as he continues to play his cards right – and as all her closest relatives live abroad there is a long-standing ’no gifts’ pact.

While she concentrates on the challenge of the jumper, I am juggling helplessly with my usual mental list of half-formed thoughts for the two dozen people who Geoff and I will be buying presents for. Note the ’will be’, since of course nothing has actually happened yet and the task remains untackled, growing bigger and more daunting by the day.

Issy’s distress this week, as she drifts about doing a little preparatory shopping for the Christmas lunch a deux with her silent husband, was almost palpable in her email.

“Would you believe it?” her words shrieked across the ether. “My stepson has asked if he can come and stay for two days before Christmas! Two days? It might as well be a month for all the work it’s going to cause me.”

The stepson, late forties, unattached and with no home of his own, pitches up only occasionally, perhaps once a year. I always presume he looks in vain for the welcome mat and gets the hint, so has to build up his courage to make another visit. His father lives in a permanent torment of angst about his boy’s strange lifestyle and lack of ambition, while stepmother Issy does her best to calm the troubled waters between the two of them.

She cannot possibly tell him that having him to stay is going to put her off her pre-Christmas stride, causing an unconscionable delay in the purchase of such essentials as cranberry sauce and brandy butter. The prospect of the intrusion into their traditional calm is giving her the vapours even a fortnight before he rolls up to the station with his worldly goods on his back.

Like any of us who have people to stay, there is indeed much effortful and painstaking preparation of a bedroom and bathroom, tidying and cleaning the whole house, and finding linen and towels that pass muster. Then there’s the extra food to get in (he’s a vegan – Issy has no understanding of that) and the meals to plan.

The stepson, whose views on green issues and the environment show admirable sensitivity, is a mystery to his father and to Issy. He has no desire for materialism in any form: they abhor his lifestyle, his values and his rucksack.

It is not exactly a meeting of minds and I can imagine the tension in the air when he stays.

I’ve tried to steer a middle course in my response to Issy, seeing it from both sides and encouraging her to look upon it as a conciliatory act on their part and on the part of their guest.

It’s invigorating to be pushed out of your comfort zone, so embrace it, I write, pointlessly, knowing she only wants to me offer oodles of sympathy and take only her side. I can’t.

Being hospitable is what Christmas is about, I hint, and her riposte comes winging back: “You don’t understand. This is not my idea of peace on earth.”

OK, point taken, but I still cannot sympathise.

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WRITTEN your Christmas list yet? No, me neither. In fact I’m such a numpty at the whole business that I’m not even sure what people mean when they ask that. Do they mean a list of the things I would like to receive, or a list of people for whom presents must be bought?

If it’s the former, I don’t need to make a list: I only want universal peace and happiness, that’s all; and if it’s the latter, then I just feel faint at the thought of it all and change the subject in my head.

Ever one to be helpful, though, I have made life easier for you by compiling my personal selection from those strange Christmas gift guide booklets that arrive unsolicited in the post or slither out of newspapers and magazines. I usually chuck them straight into the recycling, anxious not to let them join any of the more important flotsam that Geoff calls clutter and junk and I insist is tomorrow’s reading matter.

Those catalogues hardly deserve to be opened let alone read, but this year, on your behalf, I have courageously investigated some of them to come up with ideas for your present lists. You choose whether you give or receive any or all of the following:

  1. A wooden chopping board with your name engraved on it, presumably if you should lose it. That’s always happening, is it not.
  2. A cutesy bird-themed wind chime to hang in your garden and send your neighbours half demented because it will never, ever, be silent and they’ll be convinced they’ve developed tinnitus.
  3. Four non-slip mats to put under the feet of a ladder, which is a truly romantic way to show how much you love whoever it is in your household who cleans out the gutters.
  4. A tin of biscuits whose contents work out at approximately £1.75 a bite and which you’ll receive too late to give away as a raffle prize.
  5. A pocket alcohol breath tester, guaranteed to wipe the smile off anyone’s face over the festive season.
  6. Novelty socks, hankies, ties, mugs, key rings, T-shirts, hats and onesies – the variety is as great as your imagination which, by Christmas Eve, will be severely compromised by desperation and lack of funds. Play safe: don’t be tempted. Just think of the groaning shelves of the stuff in charity shops come January.
  7. A 3-D jigsaw of the Flying Scotsman that will remain half-completed and dust-coated until being thrown away at Easter, crucial pieces having been sucked up in the vacuum cleaner on Boxing Day along with a third of a million pine needles.
  8. Two bird-shaped clips to attach a table napkin to your front, like a bib for a messy toddler. Just bear in mind people are likely to think you are on day release from an institution.
  9. A box of vegetables cunningly disguised as chocolates. How to confuse the veg-averse child in your life and give it nightmares about cauliflower that tastes sickly sweet.
  10. Anything that is described as being ’fun for all ages’. You know it won’t be. It’ll be the cause of bitter rows, door slamming and tears before bedtime – and that’s before the children join in.

I do hope you will feel less daunted by Christmas gift dilemmas now you are armed with this helpful list. Personally, I’m on the lookout for some lovely wrapping paper. Well, you have to start somewhere.

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I’M writing this on Cyber Monday, the day when we apparently go loopy on the internet, buying Christmas presents until we pass out with the effort and our credit cards melt away down drains.

Just imagine, some of the people indulging in that charming Christmas custom probably also took part in Black Friday, its ugly big brother’s pre-weekend festival of hysterical consumer excess. They must be exhausted, poor souls.

What fun and how incredibly Christmassy it all sounds. As run-ups to a big event go, it’s not exactly edifying or inspiring. No two days could possibly illustrate more plainly how we’ve so catastrophically lost the plot and allowed the spirit of Christmas to pour away through our grabbing, materialistic hands.

Thank you, America, for those two unfortunate imports – those two days of spending and greed and those unforgettable, unedifying visions we are left with of bargain hunters turned into crazed demons.

There are two reasons I don’t have any desire to participate in either of these events, now firm fixtures on the nation’s pre-Christmas calendars. One is that I do my best to shop locally and make my pound benefit my own community as much as it possibly can, but the main one is that I can’t think of a single thing to buy.

The Hill Towers present list for Christmas 2014 is blank. It is my task (well, you didn’t think it would be Geoff’s, did you?) to fill those 25 white spaces beside 25 names with spot-on thoughtful gift ideas, for recipients ranging in age from two to 92 and in character from country mouse to jet-setting businessman.

Sadly, my thoughts on Christmas have entered their early-Advent stage of shocked disbelief it’s all happening again so soon after the last one, and they refuse to budge from their ’can’t do it, won’t do it’ position. This means we have to wait in hope there will be a significant change in gear to fast forward, or else …

I thought at the weekend that I might have made a breakthrough and could possibly fill in a couple of the blanks on the list. I had two phone calls in the space of a few hours informing me that raffle tickets I’d recently bought – in a charity shop and at a Christmas fair – had yielded me prizes. Wow, I thought immediately, that’s two presents sorted.

No such luck: one prize was a piece of jewellery (I use the word loosely) that no-one would ever thank me for giving them, and the other prize was two packets of chocolate biscuits. “They’re tied together with a lovely piece of ribbon,” my kind informant enthused, in case I might be feeling less than thrilled. She was delighted when I asked if she’d be able to pass them on to her local food bank, although Geoff looked a bit hurt when I told him they wouldn’t be coming home.

“I’ll make you some biscuits for Christmas! You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” This was said in my best ’infectious enthusiasm’ voice.

He didn’t appear exactly brimming with joy at the prospect, but the fact he didn’t beg me not to was all the encouragement I needed to make the first entry on that present list. Now I’m thinking that if I make enough biscuits, say 500 or so, then I could solve the whole 25-strong present crisis in one burnt, misshapen, love-infused and well-intentioned fell swoop.


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