The Sensible Christmas Gift: 1910

wrapped christmas gifts with holly

The Sensible Christmas Gift

Sophie Kerr Underwood

The question that has always puzzled me when I have heard people ardently discussing the subject of the sensible Christmas present is this: What is, really, a sensible Christmas present? One good soul will tell you that it is anything which is truly useful, such as a dozen tea-towels, a box of soap, a dust-cap, a cook-book, a gingham apron, a patent can-opener. But somehow, I can not happily put the Christmas giver so summarily into the Martha class.

Then there are good folk with floppy flowers in their hats and floppy sentiments in their heads who say rhapsodically that one should give only the beautiful, the aesthetic, to be truly sensible. “Give the poor factory girl a lovely rose,” they cry. “Give your cook an exquisite French print to wean her mind away from the sordidness of her work; give the little lad who sells your paper a beautifully bound book; give only beauty—beauty.”

Of course, that’s all very well, but I don’t want to give my cook an exquisite French print because she’d be furious and leave, and I would much rather have helpful hints as to what to give my best friends, Alice and Mary, and my cousins and my aunts, than suggestions for the boy who sells papers and the factory girls. I know very few newsboys and factory girls, not because I am snobbish, but because I have never had the chance to meet them. Some one else tells me “Give what you yourself want,” but that’s a poor rule. For instance, I would love to have a French edition of Beranger, and an armful of the poems and plays and stories of the modern Irish writers, but what would it avail if I give these to Aunt Julia, who reads nothing but lives of the saints? And can I give to Louise, who wears only mannish stocks—because they are most becoming to her—the frilly jabots which I dote upon, but which make her look dowdy? Nay, nay, I must seek fresh advice.

It seems as though there must be some people somewhere, who know how to choose Christmas gifts sensibly. Yet each year I hear post-holiday wails about the quantity of useless trash, mere dust-catchers, which has been exchanged under the guise of loving Christmas greetings, and to the great fatigue of the postman. I have seen my own mother, gentle soul that she is, look with undisguised wrath on a cushion-cover reeking with raw color and garnished with screaming cord and tassels, and wonder how in the world any one could dare to buy the thing, much less tie it up in a holly box and send it to her with “Merry Christmas” written on the donor’s card. And I have heard a-plenty of things like this: “Of course, I shall never use it, it’s quite impossible, but I can give it away next year.” And “That makes nine pincushions this year. I, who live in a hall room in a boarding house, have so much need of pincushions.” And “I am perfectly certain that is the centrepiece Mrs. Smith gave Mrs. Jones last year—and now Mrs. Jones sends it to me.” And, “That’s a perfectly beautiful veil-case, of course, but I never wear veils and she knows it.” And so on, and so on, and so on—you could each of you furnish a posy of such sayings, I am sure.

Perforce I must turn to my own gifts. Here is the most prized one that I ever received. It is a square of perforated cardboard with a flower neatly sewed into it with bright yellow worsted. It was made at kindergarten by my own little nephew, my godchild, and he brought it home and announced to his mother that it was for me. It certainly isn’t beautiful and it certainly isn’t useful, but I don’t care, it is a sensible gift, and I’ll maintain it so against all the law and the prophets. Don’t you understand, those little chubby hands toiled patiently at it, working the tedious thread back and forth until the thing was done, and was, in his eyes, a very beautiful and wonderful piece of handiwork. And then—why, he wanted to give it to me, and so it is the gift of a dear, loving little child, and wholly priceless.

And her is a gift which is not sensible. It is a very handsome bowl of Benares brass and it was sent to me by Emily, who visited me last summer and was not a pleasant guest. She required a great deal of attention and entertainment and she told me that she made better mayonnaise than I did and that I looked my age. Both of which statements I know to be utterly untrue. Well, I think, if she didn’t want to be nice when she was staying with me, I would much rather not have an expensive gift from her. I don’t think it expresses honestly her feeling for me. I would much rather have a pleasant memory of Emily’s visit and a little Christmas card than to think of her unpleasantly and be perpetually reminded of her by this truly lovely gift. I shall take no pleasure from the bowl. I insist that it wasn’t sensible of her to give it.

Another Instance: Two Christmases ago I received a big box of candy from a very nice man. Now I never eat candy for it makes me very sick, but I knew that he didn’t know it. And I could see exactly the workings of his perfectly masculine mind. He said to himself, “I’d like to give her something. Let’s see, flowers, books, candy. I can’t send her flowers, for she’ll be away down in the country and they’d be ruined when they get there. There’s no use getting books for her, for she’s so fussy about books and I’d never be sure that she really liked them. But candy—every woman likes candy—I’ll send her a lot of it.” And so Christmas morning when I looked at a most lovely box of sweets and at the pencilled card that came with it, I liked them both very much, and I think it was a perfectly sensible present.

Now as I go on, it is beginning to be borne in on me that a sensible present is a present you want to give and one which you honestly think will be appreciated. The oh-anything-will-do-for-her present is not sensible. Better a two-cent card that you really want to send than a golden platter and a feeling that you had to give something handsome.

When I see the groups of scrambling women battling about the bargain-counters at Christmas-time, I always feel that there lies a good part of the general dissatisfaction with Christmas giving. Going home on the cars, I heard, “well, I’ve got all my relatives’ presents purchased, thank heaven, and to-morrow, I start in on Jim’s. I think grandma will like that scarf, don’t you, even if she never does wear anything but black? Of course, it’s pink, but it’s a lovely pink, and it was only ninety cents marked down from a dollar and a half, and I was so tired looking around I thought I might as well get it and have that off my mind.”

“Well, poor grandma,” thinks I!

“But you aren’t being helpful at all,” somebody complains. “It’s all very well to talk about other people and not being able to choose sensible gifts, but I notice you haven’t made a single suggestion that will help a tired and bewildered Christmas shopper with a list as long as her arm.

All right—listen. Here’s the way I look at the sensible present. First off, cards for everybody you just want to say Merry Christmas to, and buy them early because you have so much better chance to get pretty ones; silk stockings and really fine handkerchiefs for girls, for no girl ever had enough of either; books that you absolutely know he wants, for a man; money for servants, but put it in a pretty envelope and ask each member of your family for a list of the things he or she wants and stick to that list; and nothing, no, not so much as a Christmas post-card, to any one unless it is sent with hearty good-will.

Please remember, except for this last clause, I do to set up to be authority on the subject of sensible presents. I am seeking light on the subject earnestly and humbly. I have merely made this plan for myself because I am too busy a woman to fashion gifts with my own fingers, and my time is so closely occupied that I cannot afford to waste it in aimless shopping through over-full shops. And when I say that I wrap up and address—and sometimes put the stamps on—each gift as soon as I buy it and everything is always ready at last three days before Christmas, you’ll probably think I haven’t much holiday sentiment. But I can’t help that. I’ve had to work out my plan at Christmas giving to suit my own time and strength and this is what I would urge every woman who values her peace of mind to do.

The Sensible Christmas gift must be sensibly selected and sensibly given. It isn’t a gift of policy or obligation, but of affection. It taxeth not unduly the purse, the time or the eyesight of the giver, nor the taste and patience of the recipient. It may be beautiful or useful, both or neither. It brings its welcome with it. It is not laid away and passed on to someone else next year. It says “Merry Christmas” to you sincerely, because it can truly make your Christmas merry with kind thought and loving memories. Oh, dear, all this sounds so nice! Why doesn’t some good fairy give us a magic wand so that, as we choose our gifts, we might be sure to understand which are the truly sensible and which are the utterly foolish and vain.

Woman’s Home Companion, Vol. 37, 1910: p. 65

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil heartily seconds the notion of considering carefully which presents are truly sensible or utterly foolish and vain. If any of Mrs Daffodil’s mistresses had so much as considered an exquisite French print as an acceptable gift, she would have given immediate notice or poisoned her bouillon.  Such aesthetic-minded women have no business employing servants and should be reported to the authorities for abuse.

Previous posts have dwelt on the evils of fancy-work , Reginald on Christmas presents, and the special kind of hell that is the holiday bazaar.

Mrs Daffodil has added “magic wand” to her gift list. Most useful.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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