Writing for the Christmas issue of The Quintessential Magazine, Karen McCartney explores the vexed issue of Christmas gifts for nearest and dearest…
When I lived in London in the 1990s the bar was set very high in terms of Christmas presents among my siblings. Nicole Farhi sample sales were the stomping ground for cashmere sweaters and silk shirts at knockdown prices but still maintained the pedigree of a quality present. For pedigree was everything. I have a brother-in-law for whom the right designer label is crucial. I knew this when I found a rather beautiful vintage scarf in a market. It was in perfect condition and if it had a Paul Smith label I would have been home and dry. ‘Do you think he liked it?’ I asked my mum. ‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘But I did catch him sniffing it.’ Rumbled!
While I know I have become a good receiver of presents it wasn’t always so. In the shifting sands of teenage desire I am sure my mother struggled with what was fleetingly the right thing and what, sought after only months before, had become complete anathema. So, when my presents failed to live up to my expectations I threw out the barbed line to my mother, ‘I hope you have kept the receipts.’ And a Happy Christmas to you, too.
I have grown out of that rather petulant phase while others, sad to say, have not. Children can be forgiven for the cursory attention they give to items that hold no interest for them but I find it harder to forgive adults as they give you a wan smile and the insincere brush of a kiss to convey their dignity and good manners in the face of bitter disappointment. ‘Okay,’ you want to say, ‘give it back to me – I like it, I want it and you, clearly, do not.’
This is an even more cruel blow when you have put serious thought, effort and money into sourcing the right thing for people who – let’s face it – have lots of stuff. I can see the appeal of sponsoring a donkey.
But let’s move swiftly on to the positive. What has worked, who has been filled with unadulterated delight and by what. These are the presents that were winners. There are two presents I have bought my husband that remain top of the list. The first was a vintage Norman Cherner timber side chair. As I couldn’t take it on the plane back to Northern Ireland, he had to picture it from a sketchy drawing given in an envelope. He thought he was getting a gift voucher. The second was a handmade ceramic bowl by deceased potter Anders Ousback – simple, beautiful and timeless.
Interestingly, when I look at the things I love the most they are very distinctively of the person that gave them but are also very much for me. Successful gift-giving is where the two meet. It also has an anticipatory quality, meaning it doesn’t just replace the perfume you have, but buys the very one you would like to try; the book you admired but had forgotten about (listening ears) or the set of knives that support your cooking ambitions. Mother Teresa, ever wise, said ‘It is not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.’
I have four examples of when this was true for me. The first is an example of anticipation. Did I know I desperately needed a carefully carved Japanese mug? I did not. Does its simple form and exquisite craftsmanship delight me to this day? It does. Equally I have a blanket knitted by a friend, which defies description in terms of the craft and care that went into its painstaking manufacture. I will cherish it always. My third is a gift from the staff when I was leaving Inside Out magazine – a Nicholas Jones paper artwork that defied all expectation. And, finally, a set of two handmade ceramics from a friend whose taste never wavers. Writing this has made me appreciate these things all over again. And that is the enduring joy of a great gift. So, put on your thinking caps – no pressure!