Thursday 23 January 2020

Mary Kenny: The most expensive Christmas ever? There's still a place for simple and useful gifts

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Is this to be the most expensive Christmas on record, as predicted? Well, that's good for the retail trade, and they have to make a living, too, though the whole Black Friday event strikes me as artificial. It's an American import which has very little meaning on this side of the Atlantic. In the United States it has authentic roots - linked with the shopping after the annual Thanksgiving festival. But we don't do Thanksgiving festivals, so why should we do the specific shopping day that goes with it?

You could say that much of modern Christmas is itself an Americanised version of the older Noel. Santa Claus as we know him is nearer to the original Coca-Cola commercial which gave us the jolly round figure in a red suit than to the remote links with St Nicholas. When my husband was a little boy, he was evacuated to New York during the Second World War, and there he saw, for the first time ever, the Santa Claus image - huge, over Macy's store - Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a giant Christmas tree with fairy lights, and 'White Christmas' played in public places. It was also the first time he ever saw tinsel, or Christmas wrapping paper, then rare in Europe.

Older people always say that Christmas has become more commercial, and that's because, over the decades, it probably has. Yet families always saved (or borrowed) for Christmas, always spent more on the children than they could, perhaps, afford. Central and Eastern Europe always had Christmas markets, and even when there wasn't much to buy, people sought to splurge what they could.

If Ireland can afford the most expensive Christmas ever, and if people enjoy splashing out on goods, services, food or travel, let them. Still, I've come to appreciate gifts that are simpler and often cheaper, and I've been reviewing some of the bargain Christmas presents I've received (and sometimes given).

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Fingerless mittens and wrist-warmers. Really cosy to wear. But made from wool, not from a synthetic fabric.

A single, beautiful china mug. Can't have too many mugs, and it's well known that tea tastes better in bone china.

Special teas, too, are always acceptable for tea-lovers.

Hanging pouches around your neck for carrying extra specs: not always easy to find - you can get lovely ones in Turkey - but invaluable.

Portable handbag lights suitable as reading aids, especially when travelling.

A jar of homemade marmalade. No shop marmalade tastes the same as the homemade kind.

A jar of unusual cheese accompaniment such as fig, or quince.

Bedsocks. Socks are sometimes categorised as unwanted gifts, but bedsocks are great - and environmental!

A box of soft black pencils, with soft eraser attached. Anyone who does crossword puzzles needs pencils in soft black for legibility, plus a soft eraser which deletes errors. There's a fine pencil product called Blackwing.

A cake. I'm asking my grandchildren to bake me a banana cake for a Christmas present. Delicious. Nutritious. Not too sweet.

A tasteful packet of book plates. Those of us who still like printed books enjoy pasting a pretty book plate inside it.

Very slim paperback books that fit into a handbag. There are compact Faber Stories recently published with tales by Edna O'Brien, Julia O'Faolain and Barbara Kingsolver. Penguin also does some note-book sized essays by George Orwell. And there's a neat, mini collection of Patrick Kavanagh poems.

A light, foldable backpack that collapses into itself. Terrifically useful for any kind of travel where, inevitably, you acquire extra stuff.

Decorative headbands as found in shops for youngsters like Claire's Accessories.

A posh bottle of nail varnish: I wouldn't buy a Christian Dior nail colour but it was lovely to be given one.

Art calendars: Some people think calendars a bit boring, but I'd have one in every room. The National Gallery's calendar is always worth acquiring.

Old movies on DVD. Nowadays, films are downloaded or recorded, but it can be fun to receive an old movie - or filmed plays - on DVD. (This year, I got a Powell and Pressburger picture with David Niven, A Matter of Life and Death, and Laurence Olivier performing Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night.)

A set of pure linen handkerchiefs. To be sure, we all use tissues, but there's something kind of special about a real Irish linen hanky. It looks classy when dabbing the eyes at moments of sensitive emotion.

A refillable coffee cup or water container: So we don't have to throw away plastic bottles or disposable coffee on the go. Perhaps the most unusual simple gift I've had this year is the hardest to describe: it's a kind of wrist-pocket, into which you can insert a travel card (like a Leap Card), so each time you "touch in" you just hold your wrist up against the sensor.

The famous designer William Morris said that we should acquire only the beautiful or the useful. For Christmas, I also favour the gifts of small things.

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