It's the Thought that Counts…

By the time you read this on Sunday morning, there will only be three more sleeps until Christmas Day. Are you ready? Or are you the sort who likes to live dangerously and leave everything until the last minute? I’m more or less ready. Sadly, I have to work today but only until 4pm and then I’ll be off for a whole three days! Ooh, being spoilt here, the joys of working in retail.

As I work Boxing Day, the decision was made to bring everything forward a day, so therefore Monday is our Christmas Eve, Tuesday is our Christmas Day and Wednesday will be our Boxing Day. It just makes Christmas a bit nicer for me. I’ve had to work the last two Boxing Days and it really puts a serious crimp in the festive revelry. To be constantly checking my watch, to be aware that I have to turn up at work next day on time and sober, ready for one of the busiest days in our retail year. By shifting everything forward a day, I can enjoy myself as much as I want on Christmas Day (Tuesday) and still have Boxing Day (Wednesday) to rest and recover.

We’ve tried to cut down on presents this year. Last year I went totally overboard with everyone and ended up with a debt I didn’t finish paying off until this November. Which is ridiculous and a bit obscene, so my parents and Miss F all agreed we’d not buy presents at all, although obviously I would buy some little things for Miss F to open on Christmas Day. But then her phone broke, as regular readers of my blog will know, so we got her a new phone on my Argos interest free card and I will be paying £200 towards it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas presents this week, about things I’ve given and received over the years. About the great presents I’ve had, the not so great and the downright bizarre. Buying presents is something I pride myself on being particularly good at, in that I try hard to think about what the person would really like. If you know someone, then it should be easy to imagine what would give them joy to receive and then buy that. Of course, the absolute best presents are those that the recipient had no idea they wanted until they open it, and then they love it. Sadly, all too often, people give what they would like to receive, not what the person they’re giving to wants.

I’ve lost count of the smelly body lotion sets, scented candles which smelt like furniture polish, tins of biscuits, slippers and other such stuff I’ve received over the years, all of which I’ve politely said thank you for and then put away ready to be regifted. It is particularly galling when you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort in a wonderful gift for someone that they love, and in return you receive a tin of biscuits! Speaking of giving and not receiving, are Christmas cards now a thing of the past? This year I’ve handed out all my cards to the normal people and a large number of them have turned around and said “Oh, we’re not doing cards this year”.

Not that long ago, I needed four of those long card holders to contain all the Christmas cards I received, this year I’m down to barely filling two. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the waning popularity of Christmas cards or perhaps the waning popularity of me. Either way, it is a little sad. I love giving and receiving cards, but, as I save all my cards until the next year and use them as a guide as to who gets a card from me, it means all those who didn’t bother giving me a card this year won’t get one from me next Christmas.

And then there’s presents. Always a tricky subject, the buying and giving of presents. When clear budgets are set and stuck to it helps to alleviate inequality in spending, so long as all parties stick to the budget. I have on occasion been told a £10 budget which I have rigidly stuck to, only to have a gift clearly worth a lot more than that presented to me, making me feel cheap, mean and ultimately resentful I’ve been made to feel that way. I know that’s not the spirit of Christmas, but it is the spirit of most of us.

And of course, I’ve also experienced it the other way around, when I have given a lovely gift which is smack on the nose, or maybe a little over, budget wise, only to receive a gift in return that is clearly lacking in thought and value. I’m not that hard to buy for and if you’re really stuck, then a book voucher to spend on new books is always a winner.

Sometimes, I wonder if my friends and family know me at all, based on some of the gifts I have received. I remember one Christmas, a very long time ago, I had a big Christmas Eve party and all my friends had brought their gifts to me and each other to open by the tree. Lovely, thoughtful, wonderful gifts came out of brightly packaged boxes and we were all thrilled, until I opened the present from one of my closest friends.

You know when you’re opening a present and someone says “Oh, it’s nothing special” but it is and it’s lovely, well, this wasn’t one of those times. She said, “it’s nothing special” and it really, really, wasn’t. It was a basket of an assortment of Mrs Bridges pickles, jams and chutneys – for your 25 year old best friend? Bearing in mind, my gift to her had been tickets to see a West End Show in London, it seemed a little unbalanced and lead to a rather awkward moment, and, I won’t lie, a cooling of our friendship. It wasn’t so much the disparity in spend, although she earned a lot more than me so could well afford the pre-agreed budget, it was more the lack of thought that hurt.

Another friend for every birthday and Christmas for ten years, always insisted on buying me an article of clothing. Now, clothing is a tricky thing to buy for someone. You need to be very, very sure of sizes, tastes and fit before attempting to buy anything more complicated than socks or a scarf for someone, and always make sure you give them the receipt. But this friend was confident she knew me well enough after all our years of friendship. She didn’t.

Every time a soft, squishy parcel was handed to me my heart would sink, wondering what awful thing she’d got me this time. A teeny tiny denim mini skirt that would barely cover my arse. A dreadful white frilly blouse that looked like your Great Aunt Nelly’s net curtains and was so itchy no one could wear it longer than two minutes. A tarty, off the shoulder, black sequin top that made me shudder to look at it. A peach chiffon top that washed all the colour from my skin.

All clothes that she would wear, but not clothes that I would ever even give wardrobe space to. She was making the classic mistake of buying what she liked, rather than thinking about all the clothes she’d seen me wear over the years and realising that white isn’t my colour and I don’t do short, tarty apparel, it’s just not me. There was never a receipt included and usually she’d ripped all the tags off so I couldn’t even exchange. On the rare occasions a tag was left intact, I would take it back to the shop in question only to find that she’d bought it in the sale, and it had an exchange value of £1.50.

All too often with buying presents for people, it’s the “what the heck do we buy them” that causes problems, not the actual buying and wrapping. Most people nowadays have enough money to buy themselves whatever they want, so Christmas is no longer a chance to give people things they really need but couldn’t justify buying themselves. Now more than ever, presents are about the thought you have put into them. My ex-in-laws (the outlaws) are a good example of this. They live in a tiny retirement flat, crammed in with all their belongings they simply cannot give houseroom to “stuff”. There is nothing they want, need or desire, so buying presents for them was always a challenge.

Then, a few years ago, I hit upon the idea of making them a hamper and wondered why I hadn’t thought about it sooner. Now, you can of course, buy hampers ready-made, but they are always hellishly expensive and always contain a ton of stuff that you know the recipient won’t like or want. So, what I do is simply go around the supermarket and buy about £30 worth of food and drink I know they will use and enjoy, but I buy a nice version of it – Twinings English Breakfast tea instead of a value pack – that sort of thing. I then make a hamper from an old, sturdy box and arrange everything neatly. It looks great and is full of things they will use, things that won’t clutter their flat, well, not for long. It was a huge success and ever since that’s what I’ve done.

My mum, bless her, has had one or two spectacular fails with present buying over the years. When Miss F was young obviously my mother would buy her things to give to me for Christmas, and Miss F would run into my room on Christmas morning, her stocking clutched in one hand and her present to me in the other. More excited about watching me open mine, she would eagerly wait with quivering anticipation as I tore the paper off. One year, I opened the beautiful package to find a tube of foundation for coloured skin tones.

I was stunned. So stunned, I had to phone my mother there and then.

“You’ve bought me foundation?”

“Yes, I knew you were running short and it’s so expensive.”

“Ok, so nice thought, but Mum, this foundation is for coloured skin tones.”

“Well, that’s alright isn’t it?”

“No, Mum, it’s for black skin.”

“Can’t you still use it?”

“Have you seen the colour of me, Mum? I’d look like the lovechild of Judith Chalmers and David Dickinson!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this pair, they were TV presenters well known for their love of fake tan and the rather alarming tangerine colour of their skin. After Christmas, I related the tale to a friend of mine who is black, she roared with laughter and offered to buy it off me. In the end we did a swap, she gave me the bottle of rather nice red wine her work had given her which she didn’t want, and I gave her the foundation.

Another year I was very excited to see three, book shaped presents with my name on under my parents’ tree. In excitement, I ripped the paper off the first one to find a book on hedgerow foraging. Surprised, I looked at it, then opened the second parcel, only to find another book on hedgerow foraging. Sensing a theme, I wasn’t too surprised when I opened the third parcel to find yet another book on hedgerow foraging. I looked at my mum.

“Umm, why?”

“Well, I know you’re into that sort of thing.”

“I go blackberry picking once a year and I don’t need three books to tell me how to do it.”

I sold all three books on eBay in the new year and bought something I actually wanted, but are you beginning to see why I don’t get very excited about Christmas presents?

My ex-husband always bought me things he wanted himself, and although he did stop short of buying me a power drill, there was a camera I didn’t want or need that he then took as his own, DVD boxsets of shows I’d never heard of, and things for the kitchen I didn’t want that then languished in the cupboard after one use when he found it wasn’t as much fun to use as the ads had suggested.

One year, in desperation, I sat down and wrote a very long and comprehensive list of things I really wanted and needed. Even that didn’t work. Whilst most people did buy off list, my mother is a free spirit who won’t be told what to do so instead bought me frumpy slippers (I hate slippers, they make my feet too hot) and a large gift pack of Marks & Spencer Magnolia body stuff (it smells like cat pee on me and makes me itch).

One year, she gave me two tops, two lovely tops, perfect for me, there was just one problem.

“Why have you bought me these?”

“Well, when I saw them, I could just see you in them.”

“There’s a reason for that. You have! I already own these exact same tops.”

Then there was the year my poor mum forgot to tag any presents. That was an interesting Christmas Day. Like some kind of festive Russian roulette, we’d all choose a tag-less present from under the tree, shake it, squeeze it, and try to guess what might be in it. I ended up with a tie, an XXL hoody and a cordless screwdriver. Once all the presents were opened, we then had a Swap Shop session.

One year, we had a party the week before Christmas. A lovely evening, it was all very festive and a huge success and, as a friend was leaving, she put her arm around me, thanked me for a wonderful evening and told me she’d slipped us a little something under the tree. I thanked her, we wished each other Merry Christmas and she left. For the rest of that week we couldn’t figure out what on earth the disgusting smell was in the house. I bleached bins, we cleaned drains, we moved furniture to see if the cat had left a dead mouse anywhere, but no matter what we did this foul smell prevailed.

Then it was Christmas Day, and I lit scented candles everywhere to drown out the smell. We opened our gifts, including the one from my friend, only to discover it was the ripest, stinkiest, smelliest piece of Stilton cheese! In a box, under our tree, in a warm lounge, for a week! Needless to say, it went straight in the bin. I asked her what on earth she’d been thinking of. Yes, lovely present for my ex-husband (I don’t like Stilton, so again, lack of thought) but it needed to go into the fridge, not be slipped under the tree for a week. She got quite shirty at my lack of gratitude.

Did anyone make cherry brandy as I showed you a few weeks ago? Well, if you did, then you need to be bottling it up this week. It’s really simple. All you need to do is strain the fruit infused brandy through a linen or muslin lined sieve into a large jug and then pour them into clean, screw top bottles. You can use the bottles you fermented it in but obviously you’ll need to rinse them out first. The four 75cl bottles I made was enough to decant back into one 75cl bottle and then three 40cl bottles which I then labelled and gave as Christmas presents. I had a sneaky taste and it’s lovely, very warm and Christmassy.

By the time I blog next week it will all be over. All the work, expense, stress and preparation that goes into one day will be done for another year. I hope you all have an amazing Christmas Day, and if you don’t celebrate Christmas then please let me extend well wishes to you and your family.

Thank you for once again taking the time to read my ramblings, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Merry Christmas

Julia Blake

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