If comparison is the thief of joy, then expectation must be its assassin. And I know that this year I need to keep my expectations in check.
My first festive season with the new(ish) boyfriend and I’m dreaming not just of a white Christmas, but one with romance poured all over it – like brandy on the festive pudding. Skating and mulled wine? I’m right there. Mini breaks with roaring fires and ginger liqueur? Sign me up.
The truth is, like many of us with two X chromosomes, I am fully hypnotised by the twinkling lights, the sentimental adverts and the messages of love and hope. My heart leaps at grand gestures and small tokens.
This love of yuletide excess was only stoked by my time on fashion magazines in the 90s and noughties. We were spoilt rotten in December by smart PR women whose job it was to showcase their brand by making each gift and event more spectacular than the last. And women certainly know what women want. Presents arrived in exquisite boxes. Events were fairy-lit and held in the smartest restaurants with the finest champagne. Cashmere blankets awaited us on the seats and male models were hired as waiters lest an older, more portly one should offend the eye (although their lack of skills did often result in velouté down the velour). It was all quite a lot for a girl from Birmingham.
All this made me officially the hardest person in the world to buy presents for. Don’t get me wrong: I was living a caviar lifestyle on a baked-bean budget. After dining at Claridge’s I would return to my house-share with my mates in South London, which was so cold there was ice on the inside of the windows. (Is your heart bleeding?) The reality was no man stood a chance of matching that level of extravagance.
So after the deluge of office decadence, where I was ripping open presents like a toddler on a Haribo high, I came back down to reality. Deep down, of course, I knew that it was far more important to receive love and loyalty from my partner than a Chanel handbag; that material gifts meant little in the grand scheme of things.
But if you are in a relationship what does it say if your loved one makes no effort? A thoughtful gift shows, well, thought. I know to some people presents matter not a jot, and to you I say congratulations. I imagine you are the kind of person I aspire to be, the person who smiles beatifically at their toddler’s Christmas painting and hangs it in the house for all time. And is never caught by said children recycling their works of art when they ruin the aesthetics of your kitchen.
The truth is, gifts do matter to me. There, I said it. It’s not about expense – it could be a food I love, a framed photo, a promise of an outing. I even like socks – as long as they’re cashmere.
To me it feels like an expression of love. So, conversely, the most depressing scenario to me is the wife who cooks, cleans, hosts the in-laws and then on Christmas morning receives £100 by bank transfer and is told to ‘choose what you want’.
I should have foreseen my marriage was on the rocks when I asked for a magnolia sapling one Christmas and received what can best be described as a twig. A little bit of me died. And then so did the plant. I’m not sure how strong my gifting game was by then, so I take my share of the blame.
In my 30s I got so caught up in making the perfect Christmas – tasteful tablescaping, competitive cooking, trying to re-create the White Company catalogue at home… With divorce my world as I knew it was blown to pieces, and I bowed out of all that. Now, in my 40s. I have a second chance at life and love, and I’m seizing the chance to rewrite traditions. And so, back to presents.
As it’s our first Christmas as a couple, do we need to agree on a rough budget? What if we differ wildly in our spending – I get him a Rolex, he gets me a mug? Imagine the embarrassment. I reckon presents are a bit like sex – you don’t miraculously know what your partner wants: you have to ask.
So we’ve had the conversation and I’ve been firm – nothing with a plug. Fingers crossed.