The gifts that keep on giving

Part of the magic of Christmas is how it pulls you back towards your home—if not physically, then at least in spirit

Artillery Row

My mother has learned to send photos on WhatsApp and the other day she shared with me a blurry image of my ninety-one-year-old father endeavouring to stuff a gigantic, needle-dropping Christmas tree into the boot of his SUV.

“We won’t put the tree up until Christmas Eve, of course,” she explained to me on a video call later that evening. “Unlike the yobbos around here, who can’t wait to turn their houses into tasteless amusement parks the second Advent begins. Anyway, what do you want for Christmas this year?”

I’ve watched a skinny man dressed in a Santa Claus costume collapse with heatstroke

This struck me as a strange question, seeing as how I live seven thousand miles away, in a country to which you cannot successfully post anything. Then my mind drifted back to a time I lived in a pretty Victorian house in Oxford with cast-iron fireplaces and a blossoming garden that boasted a handsome, chalet-style summer house. The property was owned by my girlfriend at the time, and I kept up my end of the sorry bargain by chipping in every now and then to the outrageous mortgage payments. Regardless, whenever my parents visited us, they’d insist on treating me like Tiny Tim.

“We come bearing gifts,” mum would announce, standing in our stained-glass doorway with a hunk of sad-looking broccoli or half a dozen battery farm eggs. “It’s not much, but we like to help out however we can.”

My girlfriend would always accept the handouts, smiling graciously as she said all the right things. Afterwards, she’d stride back through the house to find room for them in our pastel blue Smeg refrigerator, amongst the Fortnum & Mason parcels and magnums of Bollinger.

“Well, I need several pairs of new trainers,” I said to mum over WhatsApp, “and another tennis racquet. Plus, there are always books to download, subscriptions to renew, flights to never take—”

“Your father and I will transfer some money,” mum said, and I instinctively averted my dishonourable eyes, taking care not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

In my defence, mum will send the equivalent of a stick of broccoli, convincing herself that fifty British pounds will adequately cover all of my needs. Raised by penny-pinching puritans on a remote Derbyshire farm, she lives by the simple rule that trifling sums of money are “not to be sniffed at”. My mother would sniff at five million pounds, which would somehow qualify as gauche to her. But five new pence? Never. And she’s not wholly wrong. After all, fifty quid will cancel out the price of the paperbacks I’ll be ordering her and dad from a robot-operated warehouse somewhere in the Home Counties.

Part of the magic of Christmas is how it pulls you back towards your home

This will be my third Christmas in a row spent in the Southern Hemisphere. My third Christmas roasting in oppressive summer heat, unsure what to do with myself. After two thousand years, you’d have thought countries not in the frozen North would have cooked up Christmas themes of their own by now, but no. I’ve watched a skinny man dressed in a Santa Claus costume collapse with heatstroke onto the pavement outside a popular pharmacy chain he was promoting. There are precious few signs of Christmas here in Buenos Aires, but every now and then, idling around the city, one chances upon a sponsored snow scene complete with sleighs and reindeer, where impossibly perfect families pretend to frolic together in fur-lined winter coats and woolly bobble hats. It’s utterly macabre.

“I don’t know how to tell my daughter that it isn’t going to snow on Christmas Day,” a friend here said the other day. “She’s so excited because she’s never seen snow. I’m completely powerless against the relentless onslaught of Western propaganda.”

“Aren’t we all,” I said in the most sympathetic voice I could muster while pouring myself another glass of Coca-Cola. “Aren’t we all.”

Of course, part of the magic of Christmas is how it pulls you back towards your home—if not physically, then at least in spirit. I am haunted by memories of ugly, itchy sweaters; of an overheated house bedecked in glittering festive garlands; of the rotten stench of my family’s farts around an oversized tree after a bacchanalian feast in which frightening quantities of broad beans and brussels sprouts are gobbled. On the plus side, I get to escape all of that, and to sunbathe on my balcony on Christmas day in the morning.

Living in Argentina, where shoddily manufactured junk costs an arm and a leg, we’ve completely lost our consumerist instincts

Christmastide in Argentina is a curious affair because there’s nothing exceptional about it. Argentines know what they like, and traditions here are built on the timeworn principle of rinse, wash, repeat. The Christmas holidays are indistinguishable from any given Sunday. You grill half a cow on the parilla, you sit around for endless hours with family and friends, sipping yerba mate, Fernet Branca and Malbec, you gripe about the corrupt government and the crumbling economy. Then, as your over-indulged brats get increasingly hopped-up on sugar and partake in pissing competitions all over the terracotta tiles, you philosophise about football and women. Christmas, Easter, children’s birthdays, drinks parties, the numerous public holidays: they all just sort of melt into each other, the common theme being “You’re in Argentina.” There are no special foods laid out for specific occasions. The menu stays the same, regardless of time of year, age group or class. It’s not so much comfort food as comfort living. Uniformity is the spice of life. Not that there are spices to be found anywhere.

Nor are there any decent gifts to buy, which obviously counts as a huge plus. “What are you getting me this year?” my girlfriend jokes, and I play along, slapping a thick slab of raw, dripping beef into her upturned palm. We laugh as we masticate and guzzle until we’re about ready to pop, then Catherine dozes in the sunshine and I carp about my bloated stomach, popping omeprazole as I loosen the rope holding up my decomposing swim shorts. Later, we take a long walk and splurge on something substantial, like ice cream.

Living in Argentina, where shoddily manufactured junk costs an arm and a leg, we’ve completely lost our consumerist instincts. It’s tough, and we’re considering costly therapy sessions to help us shop again, like we used to back in England, when we first met.

One day last month, Catherine returned home from the hardware store, where she’d spent four solid hours stood in a queue. When I asked why she’d gone to the store in the first place, she said, “To buy you a treat,” pulling a replacement water filter cartridge out of the waistband pocket of her yoga pants. It was the most romantic gesture she’s made in years, and I studied the little piece of plastic like it was made by Fabergé, thinking, Who have we become?

Probably the worst gift I ever heard of was a spanner. It was given to a friend of mine by his first proper girlfriend. This was back when we were in the sixth form at school, and theirs was the repellent kind of teenage relationship where they couldn’t bear to not be fondling each other or playing tonsil tennis every second of every day. They were physically inseparable until his seventeenth birthday when, without explanation, she presented him with a ten-inch spanner. Not knowing what to say, he began to worry about their future together—and from there, everything quickly unravelled. “The birthday spanner,” he lamented to me one year after their very public and very ugly breakup, “that was the beginning of the end.”

Things started to go awry on Christmas Eve, when my sister rocked up to Midnight Mass stewed on limoncello

As far as I know, no one in my family has ever gifted anyone a spanner, but they have forgotten my birthday on more than one occasion. My fifteenth birthday, for example. We were in the Florida Keys and I was flabbergasted when nobody mentioned anything over the breakfast pancakes. Imagining their selfish faces splatted with my syrup-drenched buttermilk combo, I came perilously close to making a scene of newsworthy proportions. But after several minutes of brooding reflection, in which I stared moodily out of the diner window, slurping at my jumbo banana milkshake topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, I elected instead to fake a chivalrous maturity way beyond my years. I shall afford the cheapskates the benefits of the doubt, I thought, anticipating a weighty and well-earned surprise later in the day—an American passport, perhaps, or an excursion to a titty bar.

When four o’clock slunk around and everybody lay asleep by the swimming pool, open paperbacks covering their snoring faces, I started to wonder if I didn’t in fact exist.

“Hel-lo?” I said, shaking everybody awake.

“What is it?” asked my father, a half-read biography of Igor Stravinsky slipping from his nose onto his lounger. “What’s happened? Is it the car?”

“No, it’s not the car,” I said, furious. “Do you people even know what day it is today?”

He glanced at my mother, who shrugged.

“It’s Saturday,” said my younger sister from behind her latest Sweet Valley High.

I shot her—and her ridiculous novel—a withering look. “Very funny. And what’s the date today?”

They stared blankly, then dad reached for a copy of the Miami Herald folded neatly alongside his highball of Dr. Pepper. “August fourth,” he said, tapping the front page.

“Right. And does that date not mean anything to you?” I asked, my fists now balled against my trim, adolescent hips.

My sister lifted her heart-shaped sunglasses from her face. “Summer?”

“It’s my birthday!” I yelled.

“Ohhh,” everybody said. A little guiltily, I thought.

My mother inexplicably checked her tiny watch. “So it is.”

With a teenage huff, I held out an expectant hand, clicking my fingers as I turned my palm upwards, ready to be showered with the lavish presents they were all presumably hiding under their deckchairs. “Well…?”

“Well… happy birthday, I suppose,” mum said. And she lay back down, placing a dogeared copy of Jamaica Inn back over her sunburned nose.

Exactly two years later, my father knocked on the door and popped his head into the family dining room in Hertfordshire. I was sat in his seat at the head of the mahogany table, pretending to read a hefty biography of Adolf Hitler. “I’m not disturbing you, am I?” he asked.

I shrugged sullenly behind my tome, and he marched over, handing me a small, rectangular present. It was clumsily wrapped in candy cane paper, and I could tell by its shape and the rattle it made against my ear that he’d bought me a cassette tape. A characteristically modest gift, but I remember feeling an unspoken thrill of gratitude and excitement. One thing my father does possess is a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of music. Whatever he’d chosen to give me, it was guaranteed to carry vast cultural significance, and to have been selected with the meticulous forethought of a zealous aficionado. I tore unceremoniously at the paper and Sellotape, tossing the scraps over my shoulder onto the dining room’s polished slats.

“It’s that album you really wanted,” dad said, looking delighted with himself.

I stared for a painfully long time at the cover of the cassette tape, opening and closing the box to confirm it wasn’t some sort of sick joke. Then I turned to look behind me, hoping to see someone else in the room: someone that my father knew better than me.

But there was no one there, just a Dustbuster charging in the wall socket, its tiny red light winking at me.

When I faced him again, Dad was gnawing contentedly on his tongue, like an English Setter after a fruitful day’s hunting. A long and heavy silence followed, during which he nodded his head in a loaded sort of way, prompting me to show some bloody gratitude for his thoughtful gift. But when I finally opened my mouth, prepared to lie like a Soviet official after Chernobyl, nothing came out, except a small, burping noise. I was too upset, too angry to speak. Does this man not know me at all? I asked myself, a prospect that wounded me to my core.

At that time in my life, I was trying very hard to be heavily into the indigenous nose whistle music of the Kayapó peoples of the Brazilian rainforest—an affectation, I should stress, of which my father strongly approved. What the hell did I want with an album by Right Said Fred?

“I can tell that you’re lost for words,” dad said, and I nodded back at him, trying not to cry, or commit my first murder. “To be perfectly frank with you,” he added, with a sudden, concerned frown, “had you not dropped all those hints, I’d never have dreamed this was your sort of thing. It must have hidden depths, eh? What do you say, shall we give it a proper listen?”

He snatched the tape from my hand and vanished like a magician’s assistant into the living room. I trailed behind a minute or two later, my mind trying to make sense of the absurd mix-up, my knees feeling like they weren’t there. Who has he confused me with this time? I wondered, compiling a troublingly extensive list of potential candidates in my mind.

Dad had already slipped the tape into his Bang & Olufsen twin-deck and was parked comfortably in his leather single lounger, clutching the remote control. I fell dejectedly into the three-seater and he lifted his eyebrows, saying, “Ready?” He pointed the control at the stereo system, pressing ‘PLAY’.

“I’m too sexy for my shirt / Too sexy for my shirt / So sexy it hurts,” began the excruciating opening track. Dad’s face slowly started to collapse, and he shifted his sagging buttocks noisily in his seat.

By some miracle, we nearly made it all the way to the end of the song, but when the male singer started to growl, “I shake my little tush on the catwalk,” dad turned to me, his face now entirely drained of colour. “This is… ghastly!” he said.

A great wave of relief crashed over me. “Yep,” I agreed, staring at him in a decidedly pointed manner. “It really is.”

And he glanced one last time at the album cover, saying, with a doleful shake of his head, “I don’t know what you were thinking.”

I thought he’d screwed up about as much as it was possible to screw up, but I was wrong. In the early 2000s my family endured one of those Christmases that almost make me happy I now live on the other side of the world. Things started to go awry on Christmas Eve, when my sister rocked up to Midnight Mass stewed on limoncello.

“Limoncello?” I whispered into her ear as the vicar welcomed us all.

“Found it,” Sophie slurred, swaying on the heels of her knee-high boots. “Back of parents’ drinks cabinet.” She grinned madly, clutching at my forearm. “Merry Christmas!”

“It is now,” I said, thoroughly enjoying myself.

For the next hour and a half, Sophie belted out carols with an abandon unequalled in the history of the Anglican Church. Fellow members of the congregation stopped singing to watch her, dentures ajar, while our fuming mother glared daggers from the choirstalls. As a reward for her efforts, Sophie was chased around the nave after the service by the choirmaster, who had a thing for drunk young girls. When we got home, mum slammed her handbag onto the hallway table, announcing through her teeth that she was “ashamed” of the pair of us.

“What have I done?” I protested, and she gave me a long, scornful look, which I interpreted to mean, “Tonight?”

I woke with renewed cheer on Christmas morning to find Sophie throwing up. “It’s… the turkey,” she said, slumped over the toilet bowl in a fluffy mohair cardigan and fishnet tights. “I can’t… stand… the smell… of… the turkey.”

When she finally teetered downstairs, clutching her forehead and groaning like a camel, dad slipped an old record of King’s College choir onto the turntable, and we exchanged gifts around the tree. Neither Sophie nor I had two pennies to rub together at the time, but nevertheless she somehow managed to spoil us all with outrageously expensive gifts, as she always does, overcompensating for who knows what. I got an iPod, which I’d no idea how to use. In return, I presented Sophie with a paper bag of carbonised bran cookies I’d managed to set on fire in my oven two days before.

“Thanks,” she said, looking like she was about to retch again.

“It’s nothing,” I said, “really.”

She tried to smile, her eyes filling with tears. Tears that would soon be tumbling down her cheeks as she sat alone on the other side of the room, sampling my heartfelt excuses for a gift, charred crumbs spilling like coal briquettes into the lap of her miniskirt.

“Is everybody done?” my father asked. “Well, good then. Now it’s time for the real deal, la pièce de résistance.”

We all rolled our eyes as he hopped across the room and bent down beside the tree. Half a minute later, he staggered backwards, his liver-spotted arms shaking under the weight of whatever he was carrying. “Careful,” he wheezed, “it’s surprisingly heavy.”

He dropped the gift onto the sofa alongside my sister and she rocketed into the air.

“And it’s such a vital document that I got one for you, too,” he said to me, whirling around, and I told him to sit the hell down, that I’d get it myself.

“Good idea,” he said, clutching his chest.

“Is it the Ten Commandments?” I asked, struggling to lift the thing off the floor.

“Oh, it’s better than that,” dad said.

“A Right Said Fred album?” I joked, and his face turned sour.

Sophie was watching me with a worried expression. We silently agreed to unwrap our identical presents together. “What’s this?” she asked, staring at the thickest coffee table book I’d ever seen.

My father sat hunched in his lounge chair, rubbing his hands together like an evil wizard. “It’s a photography book, of course. Only, all the photographs are of 9/11.”

My sister turned the pages of her copy like they might jump up and bite her. “I see.”

There were photographs of the faces of those who perished on that fateful day. There were photographs of the scorched steel girders of the Twin Towers bent hideously out of shape. There were photographs of the skyscrapers collapsing in on themselves, of helpless office workers leaping from the windows, praying their umbrellas would function as makeshift parachutes. There were photos of dead, blistered firemen, of grieving families, of singed children’s toys, of assorted human remains.

Sophie stopped flipping the pages, pointing a finger. “Is that…” She started to heave again. “Is that… a foot?”

“Oh, yes,” my father said, “isn’t it terrific? What a powerful photograph!”

“It’s smoking!” my sister screamed.

“Yes, I know,” my father said. “Can you believe the lucky sod who captured that? I’d kill—kill!—for an opportunity to take a photograph like that just once in my life.”

“Jesus!” my sister cried.

“Dad,” I said, staring in horror at the grizzly images, “don’t you think this is a little…”

“What?”

“Well… unchristmassy? I mean, it’s not very… festive, is it?”

“Festive schmestive,” my father said, waving a dismissive hand. “It’s an important historical record. It’s also art, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“A smoking foot?” my sister yelled.

“Heavens above,” my mother said in an exasperated voice. She turned to face her children. “I did try to warn him, but would he listen to me? Would he ever.”

“Do shut up, woman,” my father said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, go boil your head!” mum shouted, retreating back to the kitchen to finish her days-long preparation of our extravagant Christmas dinner.

That afternoon, as we sat together and ate, I glanced up from my overloaded plate, across the table, at my sister. A tissue paper crown was perched wonkily atop her head. She saw me staring and started off again. “A smoking foot,” she blubbered, diamond-shaped tears falling from her cheeks into her chestnut stuffing. “A foot! Smoking!

And I started to laugh hysterically.

My laughter was the kind that really hurts, and it set my mother off, who started to weep breathlessly, pounding the table with her palm. I was laughing so hard that I had to clutch my stomach, and the two of us set off my father, whose sloping shoulders danced with joy as he wiped his eyes behind his spectacles. Soon enough, as I begged the Good Lord for mercy on the birthday of His only begotten Son, Sophie was laughing, too. Her paper crown bounced atop her messy but ever-so-trendy bun, and I lifted my head to study the riotous members of my immediate family one-by-one, thinking as I observed their fits of merriment that I couldn’t remember ever feeling so undeservedly blessed.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover