on Nov 28, 22

Saying 'no' to knickknacks, notebooks and other bad gifts

By Truis Ormsby-Martin - 

Sometimes I’m at a complete loss about what goes on inside my mother’s head. Don’t get me wrong: I love her to bits. She’s my Mum, after all. But in one particular area, she completely baffles me. I expect most of us probably have someone in our lives like her.

The thing I don’t get is this: she’s the person who raised me to love the Christmas season. From her, I learned a deep appreciation of the biblical Nativity story, in its own cultural context. Traditions have grown outward from that very Christian celebration and wound like ivy through the traditions of other cultures – so much, that much of the world still enthusiastically celebrates the event two millennia later.

She tutored me in the noble art of decorating a beautiful tree for the season. She taught me how to fold gift-wrap perfectly around any shape of package, and to tie a lovely bow. She showed me a great trick for easily drawing realistic holly leaves. I know: holly, snow, reindeer and fir trees have nothing to do with the Nativity, and certainly nothing to do with a southern-hemisphere December. Nevertheless, they’ve become bundled in with the greater parcel – and icons are important to us humans.

And she was the one who, every year, reminded us that Christmas was about giving, not getting. When I inevitably asked the Father Christmas question, Mum encouraged my lifelong curiosity about the real Saint Nicholas, whose name morphed into ‘Santa Claus’. I’m not Catholic, but I can’t help respecting someone who truly lived the Christian tenet of humble generosity toward those in need. His story is the whole reason that, these days, Christmas and gift-giving go hand in hand. (For a short history lesson, check out the Wikipedia entry for Saint Nicholas.)

My childhood was a long time ago now, I admit, and neither Mum nor I have gone to any church for years. But the Christmas is still my favourite calendar date. A couple of times I’ve run a Christmas-themed full-scale pub quiz for the office Christmas celebration. I go hunting for snaps, treats and tiny useful oddities to pop into home-make bon-bons (crackers).

Each year I pull out my collection of Christmas fashion accessories and start stringing outdoor fairy lights – but only from the start of Advent! (That’s the first Sunday in December. Up to that date, anyone could mistake me for The Grinch.) Call me a purist: you’d be right. If we gloss over why these trappings are part of the celebration, 25 December is a blank-faced public holiday – just a commercialised candy festival, alongside Easter and Halloween. I feel its symbolism is too important to let that happen.

So, if Mum was the one who passed on all this passion for Christmas to me, why are her gifts under the tree always the ones that make my heart sink? Her lesson was always to choose something that the recipient would truly appreciate. I like to judge a good gift by a variant of the Feng Shui principle: “Give nothing that they will not use or find beautiful.”

Yet – year after year – I pull back the wrapping to find things like a little plastic violin knickknack (no Mum, I took cello lessons at high school, for less than a year), a scratchy polyester handkerchief (sorry, that embroidery was definitely machined, not by hand), or a 5cm square notepad decorated with a barn owl that obscures most of the note-taking space (yes, I like owl-things, but just having an owl on it doesn’t automatically mean it’s a thing I’ll like). It’s not the value of the object, but its relevance to the recipient. Take for example: the worst one. She ordered a design-your-own calendar with photos of my gorgeous son … but she gave it to him, not to me. I mean, what the?!?

I reckon every family culture has some weird self-defeating habit. Our particular dysfunction is never directly criticising or arguing. I’d never openly say how disappointed I am about her choice of gifts. The only appropriate response to receiving a gift is effusive gratitude, no matter how false. I feel disloyal even writing these words, but I hate that about us. I’d really love to say: “Mum, you’re dreadful at choosing gifts, so just stop.” But I won’t, because that’s part of who we are. I learned these values from my Mum, who learned them from her Mum, who … you get the picture.

Complicating all this, Mum also expects to see her gifts in our home when she visits. Regifting is verboten. So are op shop donations. And we must never, ever, throw a gift into the rubbish. For most of my life, I’ve followed these rules simply to avoid any upset. But this year, she’s moved into a rest home, and has made it clear that she’s unlikely to ever travel to me in Wellington again. Phew! I feel I can finally start moving things on that are just unwanted clutter in my home and my headspace.

What irony, that expressing generosity to our loved ones should cause so much discomfort!

For the past few Christmases, we’ve said: “Let’s not do gifts this year – we have everything we need, and no space for More Stuff – just a card would be lovely.” She replies: “Oh yes, that’s a good idea” … then still gives gifts. But this year, I discovered a way to shortstop her usual habit: I’ve learned about The Good Registry.

So this Christmas, I’m taking a leaf out of the real Saint Nick’s book, to focus on generosity to those in need. The family will still gather for Christmas feasting and – thank goodness – we are all in the privileged position of having everything we need. This year, I’m putting out the opposite call about gifts from my usual. 

My email says: “I do want a Christmas gift this year, please – a donation to my chosen charity!” – with a link to my Good Registry. Because I don’t need the gift, but others do.

Are you thinking right now about past Christmas gifts involving perhaps a jute doormat painted with a blobby purple lobster (maybe?) – because you like fishing? Or an oversized coffee mug painted with a cheesy off-centre pun – because you like espresso? Or a 40-by-40cm benchtop appliance for your tiny kitchen – because you need efficient ways to cook? I have a suggestion. Start planning now how you’ll word your message to family, asking them to donate to your Good Registry.

If you'd like to set up a fundraising registry this Christmas, you can do that here. The Good Registry has 65 charity partners you can choose from. Share the link to your registry with family and friends, and they can all donate to your chosen charity this Christmas. 

Or ask friends and family to gift you Good Gift Cards

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