In My Family, Christmas Presents Aren't A 'Thing'

I used to wonder why my parents were so bad with presents - I assumed it was because they didn't care. Knowing my parents as I do now, I realise it's because they don't care.
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Publish date:
December 26, 2012
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presents, Christmas, Christmas gifts

Around this time of year I always remember, as a child, reading a piece of research claiming 58% of kids prefer spending time with family than opening Christmas presents. My nine-year-old-self called bullshit.

Not because my nine-year-old self preferred presents, au contraire, she definitely preferred lunch. It's because everyone else’s presents were AMAZING compared to hers, which were crap.

As a child, when December drew near, I would grow sullen and fearful. This was the month that marked me out. At the start of the January term, as "What did you get?!" reverberated around the playground, I would go and hang out with the friendless Romanian boy who wore tights.

For I, readers, belong to a family of bad present-givers.

Compared with the hustle and bustle of list-making and collecting ideas and the rushing round in November of other families, I have parents who don’t place any importance on presents at all. I, along with my siblings, have never been asked the question: "What do you want for Christmas?" or been asked to make a list.

In my massive family, presents just aren't a 'thing'. Food is a thing (a three-types-of-potato-thing), elaborate decorations are a thing, carols are a thing. Presents? Not a thing.

Because when it comes to Christmas, my folks are resolutely anti-materialistic. As we grew up, in their minds a lesson to their children in refusing to be a consumer sucker was more valuable than anything they could buy us. Unfortunately this meant the only expense involved was the one I bore -my childhood street cred. At least that was how I saw it.

As far as Small Sally was concerned, all the children in the land (playground) were lavished with everything their hearts had desired since 26th December the previous year.

I had visions of other parents sneaking their heads round living room doors to capture their children's – my classmates’ - delightful gasps at every Polly Pocket and Scaletrix advert that flanked Sister Sister (or whatever they were watching - I didn't know for sure, we didn't have a TV. I won't go into it, one case of cruelty at a time, people).

In my head these parents jotted each item down on a special list, entitled LOVELY THINGS FOR MY DARLING PRECIOUS CHILDREN THIS CHRISTMAS or some such. Then I envisaged them tiptoeing through front doors in November to hide an assortment of age-appropriate gifts in the cupboard above the coats. In the playground I heard rumours of stockings as big as PILLOWS, for God's sake.

There was none of this at my house. Is this what abuse feels like? I wondered. Of course, the two children for whom this was actually the case are probably now bankrupting themselves to do the same for their families, but that was neither here nor there to nine-year-old me.

Why my parents were so bad with presents I didn't know. I assumed it was because they didn't care. Knowing my parents as I do now, I realise it's because they don't care.

Every bad present-giver is unique in their own way. My parents' own brand of neglect is down to a potent combination of obliviousness, out-of-touchness and all-encompassing indifference to the corporate throwaway high street aspect to Christmas they hate - BUY SALE CRIMBO PRESENTS NOW GIFTS GIFT GIFTS etc.

For my siblings and I there was no rushing down at 5am on Christmas morning. Our 15-strong extended family all wait to open presents until 6pm, excruciating if you're expecting a pile of treats - I was under no such illusion. There would be one thing for each child under the tree, and that thing always had distinct philanthropic undertones, which didn’t count as a gift to me.

Oh charity's all the rage now (I’m well aware of three-year-old Crouch End-dwellers sending their Christmas lunches to Africa), but try growing up in the Pog-ridden '90s where charity shops were MANKY and accessories made from woven straw, social suicide.

Each and every year I hoped I might unwrap something other than a Fairtrade bum-belt. In my head the space under the tree became a symbol of popularity and cool. The emptier the space, the more barren my social standing. Unfortunately for me, my parents ignored that space - like a human tends to ignore carpet.

And somehow - SOMEHOW - I managed to function as a normal, semi-popular member of class 3F while ducking and dodging Christmas present questions by various means (ok, one. Tights Boy sometimes took his leg apparel off to show me his willy - a welcome distraction), and get on with my life.

As I grew I realised no one used the roller-skates with green inside and a pink brake anymore. Ditto the Barbie sports car. And the double-decker Polly Pocket.

My parents’ attitude is pretty admirable now, and I love them dearly for it. I also see myself repeating the process if I have children - although I might not take it as far as straw accessories.

Hopefully they won’t hate me but learn that the joy of what you want right now fizzles out and there are more important things to Christmas, and life. Like lunch.

Sally's live tweeting her Christmas turkey consumption @SallyGriffith.