News, Culture & Society

TOM UTLEY: On dealing with ‘revolting’ Christmas gifts

Have you ever caught one of Joanna Lumley’s travel programmes, in which the official national treasure gasps and squeals in well-bred rapture over everything she sees, smells and hears?

If so, you’ll have some idea of what it’s like in my household on Christmas Day, when it’s our turn to host the festive family gathering and my venerable sisters are unwrapping their presents before lunch.

To give you the gist of what I mean, here is Miss Lumley breathlessly describing the Aurora Borealis on her televised trip to Iceland: ‘Ooooh!!! I can’t believe I’m seeing this!!! Oooh!!! It’s FANTASTIC!!!! I’ve been waiting all my LIFE to see the Northern Lights, and now I’m seeing them on a scale that’s BEYOND DESCRIPTION!!! It’s so EXCITING!!! It’s so IMMENSE!!! This is the most ASTONISHING thing I’ve ever, EVER seen!!!’

National treasure Joanna Lumley, pictured, gasps and squeals in ‘well-bred’ rapture when describing what she can see during her recent series of travel shows 

The same happens when people unwrap mundane gifts from under the Christmas tree

The same happens when people unwrap mundane gifts from under the Christmas tree

Enough to say that, without fail, my two sisters go into similar ecstasies over everything we and our four boys may have given them, leaping up to hug the donor with shrieks of extravagant gratitude.

A bar of upmarket soap? ‘Ooooh, what a FABULOUS treat!!!! I just can’t TELL you!!! This is the LOVELIEST thing I’ve ever, EVER smelt!!! Mmmm, it makes me feel like a FILM STAR!!! I want to sink into the bath RIGHT NOW and just LUXURIATE for the rest of the day!!!’

A bog standard scarf from M&S? ‘Oh, my GOODNESS!!! How did you GUESS??? I’ve been looking for something like this for absolutely AGES!!! Thank you, thank you THANK YOU!!! It’ll go with simply ALL the clothes I possess!!! I’m going to put it on this VERY MOMENT and wear it until the day I DIE!!!’ 

To be fair, the Utley men are almost as bad — if you call it bad to ladle on the gratitude beyond a point that seems wholly justified by the munificence of the gift.

Indeed, of a Christmas morning, my dear elderly brother has been known to terrify the young by letting out an ear-splitting bark of rhapsody over, say, a pocket diary or a half-bottle of Bell’s.

   

More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail…

I myself may even have accepted the odd pair of novelty socks — £3.50 and never to be worn — with the sort of hyperbolic expressions of thanks you might expect if you gave me Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (price at auction last month, $450.3 million).

But I like to think it’s in no satirical spirit that my branch of the family — like so many others all over the country — tends to go a little over the top when we exchange gifts, saving what we really think about that revolting tie or undrinkable apricot brandy until after the donors have gone.

Rather, we’re trying to be nice to each other. We want to give pleasure to those who’ve gone to the trouble of buying us a token of affection — even if we sometimes suspect they may have dug our gift out of their own unwanted present drawer.

Occasionally (quite often in my case, I hasten so say, before my siblings decide not to buy me anything this year), we actually like what we’ve been given.

But how are we to tell if the thanks we receive are genuine or feigned? A survey reported in yesterday’s paper purports to provide the answers.

According to the poll of 1,500 people, by the discount website VoucherCodes, 86 per cent of us have faked a reaction on opening a gift. My only surprise there is that the proportion is no higher.

Indeed, I would have put it at much nearer 100 per cent — but then perhaps we’re not all as tactful and polite (or should I say dishonest?) as I’d imagined.

Less surprising, I reckon, is the finding that if we want our gratitude to be believed, we should never utter the lazy old cliche: ‘It’s just what I have always wanted.’

This, say the cynics questioned in the survey, is the biggest giveaway of the lot — for what it really means is: ‘If I’d wanted that, I would have bought it myself.’

Another sure sign that we’re unhappy with a present — almost too obvious to mention, I would have thought — is asking for the receipt, while claiming we want to exchange our gift for the same thing ‘in another colour or size’. 

But then nor are we likely to be believed, the researchers find, if we say of a shirt, a tie or a scarf that it will go nicely with a particular outfit. This may be taken to mean: ‘There are only a handful of occasions on which I would wear this.’

Apparently, we shouldn’t even say a present is ‘thoughtful’, while ‘Oh wow, thanks so much!’ may be interpreted as meaning: ‘Oh wow, that’s a terrible present.’ (Though doesn’t this depend hugely on the way we say it?)

No, finds the survey, the clearest way to signify that a gift is genuinely appreciated is to say: ‘I’ve been saving for one of those for ages.’

But isn’t this in itself a little insulting? Don’t most of us like to believe we’re giving something the recipients wouldn’t think of buying for themselves?

And what if the gift is something modestly priced, such as a jar of stem ginger, a bar of posh soap or a pocket diary? Would it really be credible to claim we’d been saving up for ages to buy one?

Whatever the truth, the business of giving and receiving gifts is clearly a minefield, with 22 per cent saying they’ve immediately confronted people who have given them presents they didn’t like — and almost a third saying they still hold grudges over unwelcome offerings at Christmases and birthdays in the distant past.

At the risk of blowing myself up, therefore — and before feminist campaigners achieve their aim of classifying sexism as a hate crime — may I gently point out that women (my exceptional sisters aside) appear on the whole to take this sort of thing much more seriously than men? 

A survey published by Marmite has found that one-third of women have fallen out with a fmaily member over a poorly-chosen Christmas present compared with 25 per cent of men 

A survey published by Marmite has found that one-third of women have fallen out with a fmaily member over a poorly-chosen Christmas present compared with 25 per cent of men 

Speaking for myself, I always try to sound as appreciative as I possibly can, no matter how ghastly the gift. Mrs U, on the other hand, never leaves me in the slightest doubt when something I’ve given her fails to meet with her approval.

What’s more, my experience is borne out by another survey, published today. Conducted by Marmite, this one finds that 33 per cent of women say they’ve fallen out with someone over a thoughtless present, compared with only 25 per cent of men.

Meanwhile, 41 per cent of men say they find it amusing to receive awful gifts, while only 31 per cent of women see the funny side.

Mind you, it might strain even the greatest of theatrical talents to feign raptures over some of the gifts listed by Marmite’s interviewees among their most hated of all time.

Last year, it seems, one unfortunate received a tax disc holder (not even useful any more, since paper discs have been scrapped), while another was given a bag of cat litter. A third got a pair of Marigold washing-up gloves, while others were given pots of anti-cellulite and breast-firming cream.

I like to think that not even I, with my history of buying the Wrong Thing for my wife, have ever been guilty of anything quite so tactless. All I will say is that whatever I get her this Christmas, whether she likes it or loathes it, it will come with my love.

As for the three of our four sons who gave me nothing for my birthday this year — nothing, that is, apart from a text message from each (one of them a week late) — let me assure them I’ll go into Lumley-style ecstasies if they give me anything at all this Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, lads.



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