The art of festive giving
Homeware can make the perfect present. Just remember to leave your own likes and dislikes at the shop door
Sisters Patricia and Catherine McGinnis run Maven, a homeware boutique in Belfast. Patricia has noticed that, during the year, a typical customer might drop in to buy an ultra simple Muuto Silent vase (£29/€33) for their own home. The same person, shopping for their best friend’s Christmas present, would happily splash out on the more luxurious Elevate vase (£89/€100).
“People are so generous at Christmas,” says Patricia McGinnis. “They spend much more on gifts for their friend or their partner than they’d spend on themselves. It’s really sweet. They’d get one for someone else, and they’d love to receive one, but they wouldn’t buy one for themselves,” Patricia explains.
I wonder if this is a Belfast thing.
She laughs. “Yeah, we’re really tight the rest of the time but we let go at Christmas!” Most of Maven’s customers spend between £50/€56 and £200/€224 on a Christmas present. That’s in the sobriety of late November. Closer to Christmas, everything changes.
“On Christmas Eve the shop will be filled, almost exclusively, with men firing money at the situation and spending whatever it takes!” says Patricia. “Or we’ll try to close the shop early and they’ll be phoning us on our mobiles asking us to open up again because they don’t have anything for Christmas.”
Buying homeware as a gift can be tricky. Most households have a few unwanted items that remain on display, sometimes for years, because they were a Christmas gift from someone who will notice their absence. And when you finally pluck up the courage to get rid of the item, don’t bring it down to the local charity shop. The original giver is bound to spot it. I learnt that one the hard way. Once, I even had a discarded gift repurchased and returned to me. “Someone must have sent your lovely vase to the charity shop by mistake!” said the giver, revealing the loathsome object. Awkward.
Nobody wants their carefully chosen gift to become a burden. Buying from your target recipient’s favourite shop can save no end of trouble. Maven, for example, has a distinctive Irish-meets-Scandi aesthetic. If you like the vibe of the place, you’ll be happy to receive pretty much any of their stuff. “People do get it wrong but I’ve cut out a lot of those mistakes by the way that I’ve curated the shop,” Patricia explains. “We also get to know our regulars. We know what they like and we can check the records to see what they already have. When their friends and relations come in to buy their Christmas present, we can give a really good suggestion.”
Right down the other end of the country, Claire Graham runs the Old Mill Stores in Leap, Co Cork. It’s a favourite stopping-off place for those in search of unusual homeware items for Christmas. “We make sure to have a lot of smaller items around this time of year,” Graham says. “People want stocking fillers.” A simple oak bottle stopper (€6) will fit the bill.
Like Maven, the Old Mill Stores has an online shop where you can buy some of their products, but Graham feels that online retail is no substitute real life shopping. “People drop in to us as part of a day out. They know that I’ll find things for them that they wouldn’t find by themselves,” she says.
When people are buying homeware for Christmas presents, she encourages them to put their own likes and dislikes aside. “Think about the person you are shopping for. What are they into? Is their home contemporary or traditional?”
Rather than focus on the experience of Christmas day, she recommends that you choose something that will last the whole year round. “Buy something small but good.” A beautifully crafted wooden and leather fly swat (€14) isn’t the world’s most romantic gift but it will raise a laugh around the Christmas tree and you’ll be happily using it for years. “It’s a thing of beauty and it works!” says Graham, who describes it as “the Rolls Royce of flyswatters”.
The overall Christmas bestseller at the Old Mill Stores is the Soiree wine aerator (€28), a bubble-shaped gadget that fits on the top of a wine bottle and aerates it as you pour. “It’s ideal for when you want to open a bottle of wine and get stuck in immediately!” When gifting an unusual gadget, Graham recommends that you let people know what it’s for. In the fever of unwrapping, things can get confused. “Sometimes an explanatory note can help!”
Most of the customers at the Old Mill Stores spend between €15 and €25 on individual Christmas presents (possibly they’re buying for larger families than the folks up in Belfast). When someone comes in search of a larger gift, they’re usually after something specific. Graham recalls a young couple that had been in and out all year buying things for their new home.
The woman had fallen for a Starburst mirror (€475). At more than 80 cm in diameter, it was a striking piece — a small convex mirror surrounded by a three-dimensional starburst frame — but it was beyond their budget. Just before Christmas, her partner dropped back into the shop and bought it for her.
In Dublin, Siobhan Lam of April and the Bear is hoping that Santy will bring her a few rolls of wallpaper. She’s got her eye on the botanical prints from Mind the Gap, sold as a set of three rolls (€175). It’s punchy stuff, and Lam agrees that a gift like this should be chosen in consultation. “I’ve got a shortlist,” she says. Up the chimney it goes!
When choosing for someone else, Lam agrees that it’s important not to be carried away by your own tastes.
“If you’re in to wild interiors with lots of pattern you need to put that aside. It’s easy to get muddled and buy the thing that you’d really like to be given. Go for the thing that you know they’d like. Not what you want yourself!”
I’m planning to ignore this wise advice. People on my Christmas list are in great danger of receiving an adorable Mouse lamp (€65 from April and the Bear). That’s because I really like them but I’m too mean to buy one for myself.
See wearemaven.co.uk, theoldmillstores.ie, aprilandthebear.com
Not everyone has the time and skill to make their own Christmas wreath. For an off-the-peg festive shortcut try this white floral wreath with berries and foliage (€40, from marksandspencer.ie). It arrives compressed and will need to be fluffed up.
It's nice to buy one or two special Christmas decorations every year. This gold resin squirrel (€13 from next.ie) is the same size as a real one. He'd look nice with a set of acorn baubles (€9 for a set of 8) but you wouldn't want to go nuts.
Wine drinkers will be happy to see a bottle-shaped parcel under the tree. You can make it even more festive, while saving on gift-wrapping effort, by popping a couple of bottles into these elfish boots (€2, from ie.flyingtiger.com).
Most fancy coffee machines are designed with espresso drinkers in mind. Not so the Lavazza A Modo Mio Fantasia Cream Cappuccino Latte Coffee Machine (€140 from appliancesdelivered.ie) which includes a steam and whisk system for frothy coffee.
Juggling the decor
Long-stem flowers like lilies need a tall vase. Here's one with a bit of attitude. The jug-shaped Tall Arc Vase from Paul Costelloe Living combines a grey glaze with a feisty form. It costs €35 from dunnesstores.com.