The perennial and ever-recurrent aspect of the London streets at this time of year always reminds me of the old happy Christmas holidays and of long walks with three young gentlemen lately returned home, who then considered it my chief defect that I had not three arms. The mental attitude which I tried to instil into them was to enjoy looking in at the shop-windows rather than to admire or, above all, wish to possess the extraordinary amount of rubbish displayed inside, which, though it looked well enough arranged in redundant heaps, would, I thought, seem to them mere money wasted in poor useless stuff if they brought it home. I dare say I am prejudiced in these matters, having always had a very great dislike to wholesale present-giving at fixed anniversaries, whether birthdays, Christmas, or New Year.
I think that while children are quite small - say, up to the age of ten or twelve - we might leave the matter as it stands at present, as the said redundant heap on the nursery floor may give a peculiar pleasure of its own. But this is quite different from an obligatory present-giving to all sorts of people: servants and dependents, grown-up children, fathers, mothers, and old grannies. We all know houses where this kind of thing is much practised, and where year after year it is an immense toil to the givers and but very little appreciated by the receivers. It is almost laughable, the way that people who are apparently the greatest supporters of this custom of present-giving at stated times groan over the trouble and expense it entails, and congratulate themselves and each other when the terrible Christmas fortnight is at an end.
This fashion of giving presents to all sorts of promiscuous people at special times has immensely increased since my childhood, when it was only beginning - imported no doubt, as far as Christmas is concerned, from Germany. The French, who keep their rubbish-giving for the New Year, confine themselves almost entirely to flowers and bonbons, which, if equally useless have at least the merit of passing away and of not crowding up our chimneypieces and writing-tables. The turning of every shop into a bazaar; the display of meat, game, and turkeys on the outside of shops; the spending of a disproportionate amount of money on feasting - all this is comparatively recent. I can quite well remember as a girl the excitement of first decorating a church. This developed into a fashion with the High Church party, and is not an old custom. I know one old clergyman who to this day refuses to allow any Christmas decorations, and says: 'Why desecrate my church with evergreens?' If it has any antiquity it is a Pagan revival, like flowers for the dead. It may be pretty and desirable, or the contrary, but it is not Old English, though the Druids may have been as fond of mistletoe as they were of oaks.
To return to present-giving at anniversaries. I am more than willing to admit, as I have already said, that quite young children get considerable pleasure out of this custom, but even in their case it has distinct drawbacks'.
When children receive too many presents at the same time, it is apt to encourage criticism and ingratitude; and having to thank for what they do not want or already possess is too early a training in what might seem to a child hypocrisy. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth is excellent and reasonable to those who understand it, but neither in word nor idea does it convey anything to a child's mind. I heard two delicious child anecdotes last winter. One was of a village schoolboy helping to decorate a Christmas-tree for himself and his schoolfellows. He made a touching appeal to the kind but tired lady who was doing the same: 'Please, teacher, if you have anything to do with it, will you see that I get something that is not a pocket-handkerchief? I've got seven already!' Sad to say, his eighth pocket-handkerchief had been assigned to him, and he had to put up with it. The other story was of a rich little lady who was taken to a neighbour's Christmas-tree. On receiving a new doll she said to her mother: 'Really, I don't know, mother, what I shall do with this doll. I have so many already, how can I find room for her?'
It goes against my sense of the fitness of things to put either charity or affection into a treadmill and force people to give presents at a particular fixed time. Do we not all know the phraseology so often heard in the shops: 'Will this do? Does it look enough? It won't be much use, but that doesn't matter. Oh! here's a new book that will do for So-and-so.' I heard of a wretched lady with rather well-known tastes in one direction who last Christmas received seven copies of one book. Then there are the presents for dependents, which are chosen in imitation of the luxuries of the master and mistress. The sham jewel brooch or the shoddy Gladstone bag which costs fifteen shillings and is supposed to 'look like thirty.' All this kind of thing seems to me false, and many people I know are ready enough to acknowledge what a slavery it is and how undesirable. Some reconcile themselves to the folly by saying: 'Well, it can't be helped, and it's good for trade.' Even if this kind of artificial demand is really good for trade, which many doubt, this has nothing to do with whether it has a good or a bad effect on ourselves, on our children, and on those who surround us.
The giving of wedding-presents, though it is continually referred to as a tax, is so essentially useful to the receivers when judiciously done that I not only say nothing against it, but think nothing against it. I remember, in the early 'sixties, a cousin who was the victim of twenty-seven ormolu inkstands; but the practicalness of the present day solves the difficulty of duplicates, as the young people without the smallest concealment sell or exchange what they do not care about.
Though few people may agree with my abuse of wholesale present-giving at anniversaries, I think no one will deny that it tends to destroy some of the most delightful outward expressions of feeling that can exist between civilised human beings. To take the trouble to find out what somebody really wants; to be struck by something beautiful, and to know to whom to give it; to supply a real want to those who cannot afford it for themselves; to give anything, however trifling, as a remembrance - all these are the gentle sweeteners of life, and need none of those goading reminders which come with the return of anniversaries. And to come to the more selfish aspect of the question. Instead of the callousness and almost fatigue in consequence of receiving a great number of presents at once, is there not a delight that lasts through life until we are quite old at suddenly receiving a sympathetic and unexpected gift?
A great many people use holly and evergreens at Christmas-time to stick about the room in empty vases, round pictures, etc. But they hardly ever take the trouble to peel their stalks and put them in water, though - especially with holly - this makes all the difference as regards the retaining of its freshness; and if arranged in a glass, not too thickly, it looks much more beautiful, and does not acquire a dusty, degraded appearance before New Year's Day. I cannot bear to see the poor evergreens shrivelling in the hot rooms. We used to have hardly any Holly berries in the garden here, but by judicious pruning in February we now get quantities of a very fine kind.
One of my many correspondents wrote: 'If you are interested in the lighting of country houses, I can recommend the acetylene gas which our gardener makes for us. We have used it for over a year, and find it quite charming - a brilliant light, delightful to read by, cool, clean, and harmless to silver, flowers, and clothes, and safe, so far as our experience goes. Ours is the "pure acetylene" made by Raoul Picket's patent, and not the explosive kind.'