She hands me an exquisitely wrapped box and smiles. “Happy Christmas”.
I open it, racking my brains for the appropriate response.
“It’s lovely.” “Thank you.” “That’s so thoughtful.” “How did you know?” “What an amazing idea.” “Oh that’s perfect…”
I’m impossible at Christmas (and birthdays). My phrasebook of gratitude is painfully thin. What’s more, I’m convinced that any of my utterances from it are totally transparent. I’m only trying to fill the void between my embarrassment at receiving a gift and my desperation not to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it. Because however lovely the gift, something tells me it’s not what I’m really grateful for and I’m in terror that I’ll be called out on my blatant insincerity:
“Oh, you’re just saying that.”
“No, no I was thinking just the other day I could really do with a… a um… nutcracker. And the fact it resembles a gilded scrotum makes it simply hilarious. And such a talking point. Thank you so much.”
My upper-lip-stiffening upbringing instilled in me an inflated sense of self-worthlessness; so spend over a tenner on me and I squirm with embarrassment. Then again, go for something under that price point and really, there is nothing I need, or want, that I haven’t bought for myself already. It’s Gift 22.
I realise that might seem bonkers but don’t give me a psychology book about it or, come December 28th, I’m off down Waterstones explaining how the book’s Jung, gifted and back.
“Actually it’s a sculpture Holly made of her baby brother.”
“Oh yes! Absolutely.”
“She made it in Play-Doh and we thought it was so brilliant we took a mould and a clever Chinese company on the internet made some lovely gold plated models.”
“Isn’t it wonderful? There’s an eye … and the nose poking out below it.” I fondle and tweak the little baby nose.
“That’s not an eye, that’s the belly button,” she says, archly.
In the artificial setting of the Christmas celebration, giving is easy, it’s gratitude that’s hard. Genuine thanks seems a sliver of an emotion, something that can just be glimpsed between the fear of indebtedness and the pride of entitlement. In America they try to get the whole thing out of the way early by having their ‘Thanksgiving’ a month earlier. But then, if Thanks is a gift in itself, you’re caught in an infinite paradigm: thanking people for giving thanks which they will need to thank you for ad nauseam.
My kids are no better. We love them and we’ve done our best to protect them from suffering any deprivation. We do our best to give them everything they need when they need it (or the day after thanks to Amazon Prime). So the presents under the Christmas tree are guaranteed to only ever be excess. We have wrapped the kids up as carefully as their gifts and protected them from tragedy. But in doing so we’ve deprived them of the opportunity to experience real gratitude. Even so, I’ve tried to teach them to say “Thank You” and ape the responses one might imagine being truly grateful entails. We’ve done all that and that’s all the thanks we get!
Not knowing how to be grateful is a true “first-world problem”. Genuine gratitude, in all the privilege and safety that being western and middle class bestows, is rarer than McTruffles because it depends on tragedy or misfortune to precede it; things we’re superb at avoiding. But a place to hide in the Holocaust, a solid Greek beach for a refugee, or a hand pulling you up from the window ledge of the Bataclan; when those who have been plucked from disaster try to describe their gratefulness it is as an emotional euphoria.
Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote, “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” According to studies by scientists gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, provides higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism, and happiness and inspires altruism. It’s the ultimate thing that money just can’t buy. In this age and society of abundance, the one gift we could all do with eludes us.
But in that moment, holding my tiny golden scrotum, I look at my present giver and even I, with my pre-prepared stock phrases of appreciation, catch a tantalising vestigial sensation of gratitude: that my friends, and my family, still regard me as a part of them, still tolerate me, that they’ve pretty much forgiven my many many mistakes and, above all, can be counted on to be there with a bucket when I come down with a dose of schmaltz.
Happy Christmas (and thanks).
First published in