Of Time and the Season

A question from a friend and then writing all this brings me to the realisation that I’m perfectly fine with Christmas. A harmless old tradition that brings people together around sparkly lights and a warm fire. It’s the shopping I can’t and won’t abide.

This morning my friend Barry threw a question out to the social media world that brought the ghosts of many Christmases past crowding into my thoughts:

“Asked to think of something I might want for Christmas to ease the shopping burden on family. I have about 20 unread books on my shelf and access to more music than I could listen to in one lifetime. What else could I ever need?”

Before my memories crowded out his question my instincts sent him this simple answer it had taken me years of my life to arrive at:


I’ve thought about this a lot & in the end time is the gift I ask for & the gift I give myself. Time to listen, read & be with those I love.”

This instinctive statement being qualified shortly afterwards by  this realisation that I do, very occasionally, give people actual presents:

“Now & then when I’ve spent a lot of time with someone I might think of a really good gift they’d like. But that’s still about time.”

On the whole though, I don’t do presents. And as each Christmas approaches I’m bewildered by those that still do. ‘Those’ being most adults as far as I can tell.

Yes it’s Tommy Smith in the 1960s LFC away kit.

I liked Christmas when I was a child. Partly for the tinsel, the lights and the magical stories. But mainly for the presents. Not so much the makeweight selection boxes and annuals that would create a reasonable and satisfying pile as they emerged from my end of bed pillow case on Christmas morning. But much more and mostly the big present I’d have spent weeks dreaming and hinting about. The Scalextric, the Liverpool FC away kit and other things I must have wanted so fleetingly my memory can no longer dredge them up. Greed, I suppose, really.

So I understand the child’s position on Christmas presents even now. Especially as the marketing onslaught they face is so much more skilled and insidious than the black and white TV adverts and the Lewis’s and Blackler’s Toy Department displays that were the height of things in the 1960s.

But the addiction of adults to the buying of Christmas presents I don’t understand at all, and never have in all the years I’ve been an adult. Trying vaguely to fit in with my relations I’d half-heartedly set off to town with a list to shop for. Gradually aware as the years went by that there were carefully graded amounts I was ‘supposed’ to spend that would rise year on year. Including the fact that some of the closer people qualified for smaller ‘to go with’ gifts as well. Knowing all the while that none of these people actually needed any more material goods and wondering, as I shopped, how on earth I was supposed to know, for example, what the latest boyfriend or girlfriend of a family member would possibly like? Not that I begrudged them the money. It was the time that bothered me. I’d have happily given them the money to save the hours I’d spend frustratedly gazing at random stuff in shops I’d never otherwise have entered. I hated it.

It was no more pleasurable for people to buy things for me, I’d be told. I’m rigorously opinionated about clothes and have studiously avoided all hobbies that people might be able to improvise around for gifts. So, nice pastel lambswool golf pullovers, for example? Or guides to the best fly-fishing rivers of lowland Scotland? No, of course not. So eventually we arrived at the compromise of an LP list. At the end of each November I was required to supply a list of records to be passed around which I would contractually agree not to buy between then and Christmas. So people would know what to get me. Which they mostly did.

But I could never see the point in it all. So many people putting all that time into shopping for things that either none of us really needed or we’d have bought for ourselves anyway, year after year after year. Multiplied millions of times across so much of the world when every year’s calendar told us it was time to start shopping again.

In time I opted out of doing something I simply couldn’t see the point of. And it unravelled my life for a while as it turned out the shopping was some sort of social glue.

But I’m all right now and I feel for everyone crowding out the shops and the buses with their bags full of gifts now the present buying season of the year has arrived. Some presents, I’m sure, must be deeply wanted and lovingly given. Many though are probably like the gifts I used to buy. Given to fit in, bought because you’re supposed to, for grown up people who don’t actually need any more stuff anyway? I’m fine with Christmas. It’s the shopping I can’t and won’t abide.

Which brings me back to Barry’s question. A gift itself in asking about presents. Because it got me to say that instinctive thing about time, the season and what I value:


I’ve thought about this a lot & in the end time is the gift I ask for & the gift I give myself. Time to listen, read & be with those I love.”

I’ve thought about this a lot.

Thank you Barry Dallman for the question. 



13 Replies to “Of Time and the Season”

  1. Arrrghhh, Christmas presents! I do enjoy shopping for them really … except for my hubby who is impossible to buy for. He’s a workaholic, with no hobbies apart from sitting in front of the t.v. when he comes home from work … which he deserves, as he works long hours, but it makes pressie-buying very difficult for us all. And, being the bah-humbug kind of person that he is, he’ll have some criticism of whatever we get him. Clothes are a no-no – he has loads of unworn gear hanging in his wardrobe. Books are out – he used to read, but is too tired to do that now. He wouldn’t thank me for modern grooming products – he’s an old-fashioned Burley-type of guy. He’ll probably just get an extra wad of cash to spend again … which he earned in the first place. Apart from this one niggly little problem …. I like Christmas.

  2. In the throes of Christmas present buying for Grandkids I do think you’re a bit Bah Humbug! It’s a good excuse to give some books, for me it’s hard work to try find the ones that might be right for each Grandchild. But books are precious. I may not get the right ones every time, I’m sure I don’t! But maybe once in a while I’ll hit one that is just perfect – that’s what I’m always hoping for.

    Way back I used to run the local primary school bookshop, we always did well on the Christmas Bookfair, but seems to me it was so much harder to find books that boys liked, other than Transformers (Ladybird books). Now have 3 boys to provide books for. Nightmare!

    1. I have no problem whatsoever with human happiness. But I don’t think that’s what I see in the shops, on the streets and staggering on to the buses. It looks awfully like exhaustion and desperation for far too many people.

      1. I agree, Ronnie, especially for people who work full-time and/or have large families to cater for. My mum used to dread Christmas, even though she was a Christian, which was a big shame. It’s so hard for people not to get carried away with all the commercialism, especially as we’re seeing Christmas goods in shops before Halloween has barely finished. I don’t know what the answer is … perhaps it’s up to us individually to make a stand and celebrate (or not) Christmas in a way that is meaningful to us. I try to avoid the aspects of it that I don’t enjoy, such as trying to push my way through crowds in busy cities (our nearest is Newcastle), so we stick to the smaller towns round about us … and shopping online helps a lot. One of the things I am enjoying at this time of year is walking the dogs at night time and seeing everyone’s outdoor lights. I usually pass the job of night-time doggy walking to hubby because of the cold, but, at this season, it brightens up my walks no end. I know it sounds like outdoor lighting displays are just another aspect of commercialism, but if these people can afford and enjoy doing it, I don’t mind because the effect is so beautiful. I’m normally very eco-minded, but I’m making an exception for these few weeks. Sorry about the long post!

  3. I remember always asking for book tokens as a kid and hearing ‘Oh, you can’t have tokens, you need something to unwrap!’ Then when I got to be a teenager and they couldn’t think what to get me I’d end up with a stack of book tokens. Bliss. Now all’s I need is the time to tackle my ‘to read’ pile, which never seems to shrink…

  4. Wow, a whole article based on an off-hand tweet – I’ll have to watch what I say in future!

    Of course you’re right though Ronnie, in many ways the whole thing is nonsense. Once, it might have been nice to give little gifts to your loved ones, but the businesses and the marketers got hold of it and it was transformed into the predictable and tasteless orgy of modern consumption that we clearly both dislike.

    So why do I still do it? Well, first of all, I actually buy very few presents – for my fiancee, my Dad and my sister. I give my younger cousins some beer money and help my other-half choose things for her parents and her sister’s family. And that’s about it.

    I hate the run-up to Christmas though. It’s relentless when it starts and it starts too early. As a musician, I find it impossible to block out or ignore background music in shops and two months of carols, Cliff and Carey is torture.

    And I hate the crowds. The scrums in shops, the stressed parents berating over-excited children, the laziness of every marketing executive who devised a campaign that has Christmas ‘all wrapped up’. I hate the retailers trying to impose egregious aspects from the US to exhort us to spend more – ‘Black Friday’; the use of ‘gifting’ as a verb.

    But I do like Christmas when it eventually arrives. Because then it is about time. Spending time with your family, finally making time to see people when circumstances or the complacency of good intentions have kept you apart for far longer than you ever intended.

    And, like it or not, the gift-giving is part of the culture of the thing. It shows that we’re participating. It might be an unnecessary hell at its worst, but at least it’s a hell that we can share! It’s part of our culture and identity, it’s deeply intertwined in our sense of tradition, family and belonging. It says ‘I am participating in this, we are connected, this is an experience we have together.’

    To eschew the shallow commercialism and unnecessary materialism would be sensible, if that’s all it was truly about, but as you allude to in your article, people find it hard to understand when you do:

    “And it unravelled my life for a while as it turned out the shopping was some sort of social glue.”

    Those who will have given you a hard time about opting-out probably didn’t do so because they were furious they wouldn’t get their hands on the scented candles or scarf they might have been expecting, they were doubtless confused and concerned about your choice not to be a part of the shared traditions. Perhaps subconsciously when you said ‘I don’t want to buy or receive gifts’, they heard ‘I do not want to be a part of this shared experience, I do not want to do this with you.’

    In the run-up to Christmas, I am always convinced that the whole thing is the most ridiculous, overblown, shallow, mercenary and onerous social obligation we could ever have devised for ourselves. But when it actually arrives, when I am together with the people I love and the unending demands of our daily lives can be placed on hold for a moment, when we can share our time and affection and laughter and love, it somehow becomes worthwhile.

    So just get me socks or shower gel, but get me something and deliver it in person. Because then we can light the fire and open a bottle and celebrate what’s most important about this silly season – time to spend with one another.

    And that will be all I’ll ever want for Christmas.

    1. Thank you Barry, all wisely said and glad you’re not offended at a whole article being based on our casual exchange yesterday. Creative thoughts come from simply being alive and aware after all.

      I writing the post I’ve realised I actually have no objection to Christmas, other than this present buying thing, which I’m happy to be out of for good. But sparkly lights, a warm fire and drinks with loved ones? Perfectly fine!

  5. On buying presents: I’ve developed a sort of hunter-gatherer sense when it comes to buying presents, especially given that I mainly buy for the Other Half these days. So from around November, I adopt a sense of “What would Cathy like for Christmas?” and keep that in mind as I go about my daily business. Serendipity then takes over and I often find all sorts of things by chance, without going to the hassle of joining the consumerist scrum.

    She cheats. She does it all on t’Internet in the last week or so. (In fairness, she’s a university lecturer and most of her time is taken up with academic stuff right up to the end of term and sometimes a bit beyond.)

    I agree with Barry. The presents and the giving and unwrapping of them is a part of the convention of sociability that we have for this time of year. It’s all a part of the mid-winter festival of whatever name that we each choose to embrace.

    1. Thanks Rob. I think you and Barry are maybe wiser and more peaceable souls than me. I’m often scratchy and irritable, particularly around now. Being sociable never worries me and sometimes I like it, except for when society and convention requires me to be sociable and join in with all this fuss and present buying because it’s this time of the year, again.

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