Presents, gifts call them what you like, they are a highlight in life.  There is no such thing as a dud gift.  Actually that’s a lie.  There is such a thing, but there is no polite or correct way of saying so. Every so often you receive a gift that is so lame, so inappropriate, that it feels like you can’t express your feelings on the matter. And, if I’m honest, you probably shouldn’t.  Smile and say thank you is the motto of the day when you are opening presents.   Now it was my birthday recently and I was the recipient of many wonderful gifts.  This is not about my recent birthday.  I got to thinking about this because I caught the tail end of a Josh Widdicombe stand up comedy routine on TV late last night and he was talking about people who make home-made jam and give it as gifts.  He was saying it was a cop out basically.  It isn’t a real gift.  Josh, I have to disagree with you there.  I don’t make jam, it takes too long, and hulling strawberries is a drag.  But surely we must appreciate that someone who has made jam has spent quite a bit of time on it.  And this is where we come into the real crux of the issue.  Do you measure (for want of a better word) presents in monetary value or time and thought value?  Let’s say that a lawyer friend of yours gives you a jar of jam.  Again, I don’t know any lawyers who do make jam, but I am assuming that there are some warming up their agas and shopping in Waitrose for organic quails’ eggs as we speak.  A lawyer can earn up to £500 an hour.  More in some cases, but let’s remain conservative.  I reckon if this person spent, let’s say, three hours de-pitting, peeling and/or hulling fruit, boiling and skimming stuff, sterilising jars and then wrapping it all nicely to give to you, that puts the value of this jar of jam at £1500.  When put like that, it makes the DVD box set you got on sale from Amazon for £14.99 a bit piddly doesn’t it?

I am a fan of homemade gifts, because it is thoughtful and has obviously had time spent on it.  My sister K, and her husband for example made me a batch of apple and mint jelly this year and I am very excited about this.  They made it especially for me as it is my favourite and this was no mean feat considering how busy they both are with work and raising two lovely girls.

Home made apple and mint jelly.  Delicious.

Home made apple and mint jelly. Most welcome and delicious.


I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking I am probably one of those people who make home-made gifts all the time – this is why I am defending the giving of the jams.  Look.  I get it, not everyone likes home-made jam.  And giving a jar of home-made strawberry jam to someone who is diabetic or allergic to strawberries just because you made an enormous batch, is insensitive and lazy. Ever noticed that all jam makers only ever do jam in enormous batches?  It’s because it is time consuming and tiring, and only worth it if you get an enormous yield.  Nobody is going to buy a punnet of strawberries and make enough jam to spread over their current loaf of bread or batch of scones.  But giving people jam or chutney at Christmas is a lovely gift.  Especially if you are a little strapped for cash, you can make a big batch of whatever, and hopefully your friends will appreciate the gesture (not Josh, obviously, get him a DVD).  Anyway, I do give home-made gifts.  Ever since my friend J got me the life-changing bread-making course at Bake with Maria, I have started giving away bread.  If I am invited somewhere, I bake a loaf of bread and take it to give the host/hostess as a thank you for having me.  It is cheaper than wine, sure, but it certainly takes longer for me to bake bread than to wander over to my wine rack and choose a bottle that I think the person whose house I am going to didn’t give me.  As a non-drinker, I re-gift all the wine I receive.  It seems less wasteful.

This brings me to my next point:  re-gifting.  Let’s be honest, we have all done it.  I shamelessly re-gift wine and champagne.  Anything alcoholic really will be kept and given away at the next available opportunity.  Chocolates also sometimes.  Jams too… (just kidding).  I do give things away that I am not going to use.  Sometimes I will say, and others (as is the case with wine, for example) I don’t bother.  After all, people don’t care if you have spent the money at the supermarket today, yesterday, or ever, they’re just glad that you have brought a bottle.  Other presents should be re-gifted with care I believe.  Someone I know once received a gift that had been engraved – for the person who had given it to him.  This should be avoided where possible.  Also, one year, a friend of mine bought me a necklace.  It was a nice enough necklace, but really not my style – it felt too young for me.  I recognised the shop it was from and so without saying anything to her, I went to try and exchange it for something I liked more.  Imagine my surprise when the guy at the counter told me they hadn’t been selling anything like this for two years and I could get £0.01 for it.  I kept it and gave it to my niece (I told her it used to be mine).  I can only assume that my friend was also given it, felt it was too young for her too and passed it on.  I would never have known had I not taken it upon myself to change it.  I have never said anything to her and neither will I, it’s fine, I truly do believe that it’s the thought that counts. 

Except for one thing.  Smellies. 

I really don’t like receiving smellies.  With that sort of gift, it isn’t the thought that counts.  It’s the lack of thought that has gone into it.  Let me clarify what I mean by smellies here:  Smellies are hand lotions, foot scrubs, body lotions, bath bombs, soap etc.  I am not talking about an expensive bottle of perfume which someone has expressed an interest in, I am talking about your ‘Scrub and Soften Selections’, or your ‘Hand and Nails First aid kits’.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are times when smellies as a gift are totally appropriate:

  • You don’t really know the person you are buying a gift for.
  • You don’t really like the person you are buying a gift for.
  • You think the person you are buying a gift for has a terrible BO problem and are subtly trying to help.
  • The person you are buying for has expressed a desire for/interest in smellies.

If any of these apply, then off you go the The Body Shop or Lush if you are a normal person, or – if you are a non-jam-making but still high-earning lawyer – Crabtree and Evelyn or L’Occitane and get some smellies, all nicely nestled in shredded tissue paper and wrapped in cellophane.  Maybe it’s a Greek thing too, I know in the UK smellies are considered a really nice gift, but speaking for myself, I really don’t like to receive them.  Firstly because I never use them.  I eat grapefruit and mandarines, I don’t rub them into my skin.  Likewise, bergamot is nice in a cup of Earl Grey tea, but not what I want to soften my hands with.  Also peppermint.  I like it in my chewing gum, not on my feet.  And more and more, these things are starting to sound like they might be delicious food gifts, but are in fact just unctions for the body.  Whipped coconut and chocolate butter sounds like it should be on your pancakes, not your armpits.  I may be alone here, but for me, choosing what I put onto my body is a personal thing, and not one I like to have chosen for me (There I go again, the control freak is rising to the surface).  So if you are ever walking down the High Street wondering what to buy me for my birthday or Christmas or when you are coming to my house, please walk past the Body Shop. 

I am aware that for the next few birthdays, some of my friends and family will now find it hilarious to buy me smelly gift sets, but I just want to say in the spirit of full disclosure,  be warned, you will be getting them back on your birthdays.

I know some people look upon buying presents as a huge burden.  But really, buying gifts only becomes a huge burden when you look on it as a huge burden.  I don’t really like buying gifts for people I don’t know that well. I then have to buy something that says I am pleased to be invited, and wish you eternal good health and happiness, but have never spent more than 10 minutes in your company.  In these cases, there are things that you buy that aren’t super-personal and you always get a gift receipt.  I cannot sing the praises of the gift receipt enough.  First of all, it allows the other person to take your gift back if you have gotten it horribly wrong and get something they like without having to awkwardly tell you that they didn’t really like the gift you chose.  Secondly it means that you have put a receipt in with the gift without having to redact your card details and the price of everything.  Even though the price is eventually known, it is in the context of them choosing something they like and paying less or nothing for it.  Win win.  Also, wedding lists.  Frankly I think we should have gift lists for every occasion.  That way you can pick out whatever you want for the couple/individual and then they can either choose to receive it, or get the store credit and buy the home entertainment system they wanted in the first place.  Either way, you are none the wiser, and hey they put the cashmere sweater sorter bags on the list, all you did was buy them.  

The surprise element is also one I enjoy with presents.  Opening the parcel is exciting.  You can pretty much guess what is in the package if it’s DVD or CD shaped, or if it’s soft, you surmise that is is some sort of clothing, and that is all fine,  but it’s that moment, when you pick up the package, and it could be anything.  It makes me feel young and excited again, and I really enjoy that feeling.  Which is why, when asked what I want for my birthday/nameday/Christmas I don’t usually answer.  If I want something specific, I will say, but usually I don’t.  I know it drives one friend in particular mad.  It has become a standing joke between us.  Just after my birthday he starts asking me what I want for Christmas, and just after Christmas he starts asking me what I want for my birthday.  My reply is usually: I can’t think of anything.  

So in short: gift giving – I love it.  I like choosing gifts, buying gifts and receiving them.  I do have a little problem though.  I don’t like to open gifts with an audience.  Just about the worst thing you can do is take me out for dinner and give me a gift and ask me to open it at the table.  There are three reasons for this.  Firstly, I am someone who opens gifts quietly and takes time to digest the gift  (not digest as in eat it, but you know – assimilate).  Secondly, I am the world’s worst actress.  The Oscar very definitely does NOT go to Maria for her spirited and delighted acceptance of the Avocado, Olive and Basil Luxury Essentials Gift Set, including happy tears and emotional exclamations of “How well you know me!” and “Just what I always wanted!”.  Thirdly, and this happens all too often, I sometimes receive things that I have no idea what to do with.  We all sit there, turning them this way and that, trying to work out what exactly they are.  It’s really embarrassing to have to say.  “How lovely, I love it! Er what is it exactly?”  

One present it took me a long time to figure out.

One present it took me a long time to figure out.

My aunt famously bought me a top/sweater once with more holes that I have appendages.  We actually spent an hour trying it on in its various permutations until I got caught in it and had to be cut out of it.  I never wore the sweater, but we did have a laugh (my aunt included) and so that was kind of fun. Generally though, I just want to open presents at home, unobserved by anyone outside of immediate family.   I also like to spread the present opening out over a couple of days, because it feels like I am making my birthday last longer.  I know it infuriates some of my friends and completely mystifies my niece, but really, what is wrong with wanting things how you want them on your birthday?  Nothing that’s what I say.

Also superstitiously, I never open presents before the occasion they are given to me for.  I just don’t like to and so I keep them and giggle to myself with excitement as they sit there under the tree or on the sideboard waiting to be opened.  Ok, the big secret is out – I am a giant child. 

Now leave me alone about it or I won’t invite you to my next party.