Hundreds of Christmases ago, before DVDs were invented, I bought someone the VHS of Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers. It turned out to be the wrong Christmas present. “I’ve already got this,” she said glumly. Apparently, I hadn’t listened properly, although, due to her subsequent, door-slamming, stomp off to her room, I was left unsure whether it was just the wrong Wallace and Gromit video or if she’d wanted an actual pair of trousers.
Anyway, I’m reminded of this gaffe every year when I think about going Christmas shopping. It ought to have taught me a lesson, to listen more, to write things down, to basically remember to get people whatever it is they asked for. Buying Christmas gifts is a minefield; and it’s a minefield under additional sniper fire when you’re buying for your significant other.
At the start of any relationship, when all is lovey-dovey, you’ll ask her what her heart would desire for a yuletide gift; and she’ll reply, in all sincerity, with that beautiful line from the great poet and sage, Mariah Carey: “All I want for Christmas is you.” Of course, she doesn’t mean it. If you present only yourself on Christmas morning, even if you jump out of a box marked ‘Expensive totty’ and dipped in chocolate, it’s likely to be your last Christmas together.
Yet it’s that time of year already and I still haven’t listened to anyone. I’m facing the perils of suggestive product placement, last-minute native wit and outright guesswork yet again. I know I’m not alone in this. Blokes do it all the time, don’t they? How many times will poor Christmas temps working in shops hear those clichéd phrases between the festive holidays? “I got this for Christmas but it’s not suitable,” or “I’ve already got one.” They must get bored out of their tinselled boxes swapping things over for an unending conveyor belt of miserable souls, silently seething because their hints or requests either went unheeded or were only half remembered.
Now, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: girls do buy the best presents. That isn’t supposed to be the sound of a defeatist bloke giving up the ghost and saying ‘what’s the point, I’ll just get her a gift voucher’. The fact is, women love shopping, ergo Christmas shopping is not only a breeze, it’s great fun too. And, of course, shopping is your patriotic duty in these tough economic times, we’re told. But for blokes, well, it’s entirely outside our comfort zone; Christmas shopping just becomes yet another way in which we can apply our innate, soul-deep thoughtlessness.
The perennial solution women give out for this is, “write a list”. Well, that only works if you have ideas. An hour spent staring at a blank page is not an hour spent productively. But then, if you just head into the shops in a gung-ho fashion, they’ve got you where they want you. Don’t think we didn’t notice them switching on the Christmas lights early this year, to trick us into shopping as if it’s Christmas week. The only problem is, it worked.
And the shops are just as bad. Everything, no matter how naff, will be relabelled and repromoted as ‘the perfect Christmas gift’. No matter what you see as you’re traipsing up and down aisle after aisle of glittered gruesomeness, everything is a potential pressie; smiling Santas in kitchenware departments point the way to “guaranteed” festive cheer; the cinnamon and clove-scented sprays in homewares have us mulled into a false sense of generosity. We stand looking gormless beside the most pointless tat, wondering what her little face would do if she unwrapped this on Christmas morning. “Oh, just what I always wanted,” she might say. “A small, porcelain koala bear with a scented candle-sized hole in its head.” Inside the ever-so-Christmassy gift shop, it made perfect sense; outside in frozen evening air, the sheer stupidity of what you just bought slaps you full in the face with a bitter sting.
What I have never, ever understood is why there are so many festively arranged socks, scarves, ties, gift sets of toiletries full of stuff no one would buy if it were sold separately, and snow-flecked tins of plain biscuits. The heart-sinking mediocrity of these dispassionate gifts scarcely bears thinking about, yet a lot of people must buy them for a lot of disappointed recipients every year or they wouldn’t appear, in their regimented lines, with such appalling regularity. These items are only there because so many unimaginative people don’t seen to mind buying purposefully crap, unwanted presents, just so that they can avoid appearing mean. And speaking of crap presents, do they still manufacture soap on a rope? If so, why?
OK, that probably makes me sound ungrateful, but really, I’m not. Like everyone else, I warmly appreciate any gift where it’s obvious some genuine thought went into it. Women have the audacity to say men are hard to buy for. We’re not. We like our indulgences, as much as women do in fact, and, best of all, we’d like to know that we have your permission to indulge.
Therefore, gadgets (i.e. toys) are always great – anything electronic with loads of buttons and lights will do the trick. That’s no reason for people to plunder the terminally rubbish Innovations catalogue – you know, wine thermometers, shower radios, talking Jeremy Clarkson mugs, all those useless things you find amongst the chocolate teapots and ashtrays for motorbikes. I’m talking about lovely CD players, MP3 players, DVD players, games consoles, dinky coffee machines; the list of covetable gadgets is endless.
It’s you girls, whom we love so much, who are the hard ones to buy for. There’s such a thin line between what you consider quality or tat, tasteful or tacky, that we find it near-impossible to distinguish. Lots of you love jewellery but if we apply imagination, or straightforward cash, we can fall unwittingly foul of your appreciation. Same goes for cosmetics, lingerie and even chocolate. “You know me better than anyone,” she pleads, “get me something you know I’d really like.” Hmm, what does she like doing? Oh, I know, how about a bottle of Aftershock, a pair of dark glasses and a party pack of Solpadeine – because you love celebrating Christmas so much? Will that see you through the festive season?
This is why couples end up buying each other too much, spending too much, and face a January of living on spaghetti hoops to pay of their credit cards. In future, would it be OK if we ask you outright what you’d like? Straight up, directly, without the need for you to employ aggravated hinting. We can surely get you some surprises too, but if we know, we can get it for you, safe in the knowledge that you’ll at least be happy with something we got you. Of course, knowing we’ve got it, that it’s somewhere in the house, will probably drive your patience up the wall. But isn’t the trembling anticipation of getting stuck into opening it half the pleasure anyway? For some people, that’s bit like getting married to Mariah Carey.