The Nightmare Before Christmas

1_r2_c12Originally published in U MAGAZINE, December 2007

Dear Johnnie

Did you know that girls spend at least 6 weeks before Christmas hinting at
what they want you to buy them? Men say they never know what to get. Is it because:

A They’re deaf
B They’re stupid; or
C They don’t care enough to listen to what we’re hinting for?


Jennifer Stevens, Editor, U Magazine

Hinting; women are great at this. The undisputed champions. I’m not sure if any scientific study has been carried out to determine what percentage of female words and actions are made up of insinuation but it would doubtless be very high. Whether it’s leaving things strategically around the house ‘to be done’, hiding our favourite gadgets or leaving magazines open at specifically random pages, life is a barrage of strict female orders delivered through the medium of subtle implication. And woe betide the man who systematically fails to pick up on these hints; before long, a couple of empty suitcases may just happen to appear adjacent to his belongings.

Hinting about Christmas presents is so fraught with danger, it’s a wonder women still do it. Women are life’s shoppers; the notion of going to an appropriate shop to buy the appropriate gift is second nature, like breathing, weight-watching and clogging the bath with hair. Sending a man to buy women’s things is like getting a Rottweiler to choose a kitten; he’s not looking at the merchandise the same way you do and it’s likely to end up in a terrible, terrible mess.

If we’re looking for a reason why men don’t know what to buy a woman for Christmas, the multiple choices above are slightly unfair; and yet, they’re all perfectly true at the same time. The catalyst, however, is fear. The fear of getting it all horribly, horribly wrong.

Take clothing. For 9-12 months of the year, women complain of having ‘nothing to wear’. Let’s say blokey resolves to fill her supposedly ‘empty’ wardrobes, he takes his lunch break to zoom around what he thinks are her favourite clothes shops. It’s then that the fear takes hold. Crap, what does she like? What size is she? Does this really look good? Are these my hands I see trembling before me?

If I hadn’t seen such a man with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe this happened. Said gentleman arrives in the shop slightly out of breath, perspiring profusely at his temples and a glamorous assistant greets him with a smile. “I’m looking for a present for my wife,” he says. “Certainly, what size is she?” “Oh… er… about your size.” It was a maternity clothing shop and the assistant wasn’t pregnant.

Actually, assistants are another issue. Those geared towards selling things to women tend to be overtly, intimidatingly glamorous women themselves. They also view male shoppers with a high degree of suspicion. If you try to buy underwear, they may say, “can I help you” but they still give you that look that says, “are they for your wife? Sure they’re not for your mistress you lecherous, fornicating pig?” Or maybe that’s just my paranoia.

“Yes, what type are you looking for?” Well, nice underwear. “OK, what about the briefs? High leg?” They’re pretty high, yes. All the way up to her waist, I think. “Bra size?” About… out to here.

There’s a whole language we have to learn about buying these items, a language that women have been speaking since they first noticed bits of themselves were changing shape – what hope have we got in a cold, December lunch break with queues going out the door in every shop?

Jewellery? That’s a laugh. Never mind the fact that buying a nice, affordable rock from the Argos catalogue would result in GBH, the alternatives are a matter of taste – and salary. How do those romantic heroes in the movies who present the girl with a ring always pick exactly the right size? How do I choose something that doesn’t look inexpensively delicate or so chunky that Fiddy Cent would consider it ostentatious? No, I’ll leave it.

Now, what was it she was saying during No Frontiers the other night? The one where Kathryn Thomas was swanning around on a beach in Barbados – there was something the Mrs was hinting at. Was it the swimsuit or the hammock? I know, it was the snorkelling gear. And a spa treatment, that was the other thing she mentioned. I saw those in Boots, I’m sure. Are they only for feet or can you treat your head in it with that avocado sludge as well?

A few years ago in my previous job, the boss called me into his office one December afternoon. He offered me a chair and shifted around uncomfortably in his own. He sighed heavily. “Can I ask you something? I’m not trying to steal your idea but… what are you getting your Mrs for Christmas?” Quite a few things, actually. A watch, some DVDs, books, smelly stuff, things I know she’d like but not necessarily want. “Right,” he sighed again, having glazed over. “I really don’t know what to get for mine.” What did you get her last year? “A nose hair trimmer.” So you’re the romantic type, sensitive to her needs. I’m sure if you listen carefully, she’ll be dropping hints. Get her something to stimulate her senses – again. “OK, I’ll have a think, cheers.”

After work on Christmas Eve, we all piled into a local pub. The gaffer walked in with a large, oblong piece of first-form woodwork wedged under his arm. What’s that? I asked. “A spice rack.” Is that what you got her for Christmas? And only today? “It’s what she wanted.” There aren’t any spices in it. “She’s got loads at home, just nothing to put them in. You don’t happen to know if Centra still have any wrapping paper, do you?” A couple of our colleagues began tittering and he became defensive. “She only had two things she wanted, a spice rack or,” his voice trailed off slightly, “a wine rack.” Hang on, she wanted a wine rack? “Yeah.” Which you could have filled with loads of really nice wine to, you know, stimulate her senses, like we discussed. “Sigh.” But you got her a spice rack. With no spices in it. “F***! F***!”

He’s now married to someone else. “S’pose, on reflection,” he says now, “it’s easier to see why we didn’t last. Plus, she kept farting.”

Hold on, if I was able to give him advice on buying presents all those years ago, why can’t I advise myself the same way? Take it calmly and, more importantly, try to start shopping earlier than the last-possible day before Christmas.

OK, I’m going to hand this essay in now. I doubt my editor will give it any more than a C+, it may even warrant a big red, festive “SEE ME!” across it, who knows? But I’m also posting a copy to Santa – hopefully he’s been listening to all women’s frequent bouts of subtlety and is ready to help us deaf, stupid, uncaring and terrified men make this Christmas a pleasantly surprising one.

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