The hardest part of Christmas looms... No, it's not socialising with family. Nor hauling coal or peeling potatoes. It's wrapping the presents, says Clive James.
For some of us, the hardest part of Christmas now looms, which is wrapping presents. In our house, jobs for the festive season are allocated according to intelligence, which leaves me at the bottom end of the roster, doing simple tasks that involve physical strength.
There are bags of coal to be heaved into the shed from the back of the car, and then, one at a time, to be heaved back out again to the step outside the back door, with the usual pause for recovery after I crease my head on the door-frame of the shed.
Ripping into presents
The step outside the back door is the transfer point for the coal in the bag to be loaded into the brass coal bucket, which then has to be hauled upstairs and lowered into position beside the fireplace before I go back downstairs to pick up the coal that missed the bucket and then clean my hands in the kitchen sink, which then has to be cleaned in its turn.
Since there will be other people, including my granddaughter, for Christmas dinner, extra leaves for the extendable dining room table in the extended kitchen will need to be hauled out of the utility cupboard, which has never been extended, except by the accumulated impact of what happens every time I go into it.
The sloping roof of the utility cupboard is waiting for me to bang my already tender head against it, provoking a reaction from me which is a recognised part of the festive season. The extra-table-leaves hauling ceremony has to be completed well before my granddaughter arrives after church on Christmas morning, lest she hear my language. Above all she must not hear my language when I am lying on the floor under the table trying to fasten the metal clips which hold the table leaves in position. Nobody must hear that.
Extra chairs have to be brought down from various rooms and assembled round the table. Intelligent people might be able to do this, but why should they, when I am available?
Bags of potatoes and new potatoes have to be hauled from the back of the car into the kitchen. For years I have harboured the forlorn hope that my low IQ would excuse me from the comparatively finicky task of peeling these potatoes and new potatoes, but not so. Peeling counts as a physical task.
Add all these physical tasks together and you would have thought, or at any rate I would have thought, that I was on the limits of what I could be expected to accomplish. But all these public physical tasks are as nothing beside the task that awaits me in private on Christmas Eve. It is yet another physical task, but there is a mental element. Yet this I am allowed to do. Indeed it is made clear by all that I have to do it. Wrapping presents.
Element of surprise
There is no way out of it. Nor should there be. Presents have to be wrapped. I accept that. I once tried giving my elder daughter the collected poems of Philip Larkin without wrapping it and it was made clear to me that it didn't matter how good the poetry was, the effect had been spoiled, perhaps forever, by the fact that there was no wrapping to be removed first in order to reveal what the present was.
Presentation counts in Japan
I already knew all that, but I hoped to get away with it for once. You can't get away with it even once. In that respect, our house is like Japan, where the wrapping of the gift is at least as important as the gift. Many years ago, on my first trip to Japan, I rewarded my official guide with a bottle of high-grade scotch. But I handed it to him in a plastic bag. He received it politely but later on I was told I might as well have hit him over the head with it.
Wrapping the presents shows that you have not only employed your credit card for a few seconds, you have taken care. I can see the force of that argument. As WB Yeats once put it, while wrapping a piano for his wife, "For how but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?"
Unfortunately I wrap to a low standard. All presents given to me will be wrapped impeccably. All presents given by me will be immediately identifiable by the clumsiness of their wrapping. It shouldn't be like that, because one of my vacation jobs when I was in high school in Sydney more than 50 years ago was in the wrapping department of one of the big department stores.
I learned the principles of how to lay out the paper and tie the initial slip-knot, but the day came when I had to wrap a tricycle and after a couple of hours there was a crowd of other workers gathered around me laughing and laying bets. My spirit was broken for ever, and now I can't get much further than laying out the paper without everything going wrong. I cheat by using plenty of sticky tape but I can't get a piece of sticky tape off the tape dispenser without the piece going in the wrong place, usually nowhere near the present.
And there is always too little paper to be folded at one end of the present and at the other end too much. And then the length of ribbon that is meant to tie the whole thing up is always exactly not long enough, so that the bow is very small, or else a tight little reef knot which I can't cover with a fluffed rosette without masses of sticky tape radiating in all directions and… but why go on?
How to wrap an odd-shaped gift?
Which is my sentiment in a nutshell, but it has to be done. So I'll get it done and get it done badly, finishing the job on Christmas morning not long before dawn, with Santa's sleigh already getting set to touch down on the roof. There was a time when my younger daughter could be hired at piece-work rates to wrap presents for me, but when she grew old enough to work a calculator she declined to renew the contract. And I gave her the calculator, reasonably well wrapped. Now, there is no way out.
Or is there? And here we come to the biggest news of the week for any man in my position. Apparently you can now contact, via the web, an organisation which will wrap your presents badly at only £3.96 per item. A spokesman for this organisation says that "it takes a high degree of skill to deliberately wrap presents this badly".
Actually all it takes is a man like me, but there is no denying that the service provided by this outfit is worth every penny they are asking. They will wrap my presents to make it look as if I wrapped them, which is what my family wants to see. The drawback when my daughter wrapped them was that everyone could tell that I hadn't. This way, it will look as if I care. And I do. I just don't want to go mad proving it.
House of cards
The bad-wrap merchants have identified a gap in the market, and I'm sure they will flourish. I would put money into their enterprise, if I had any.
The source of recovery is still there, in the creative imagination it takes to realise that an offer to wrap presents badly could be a money-spinner
In view of the magnitude of the current world economic crisis, I still haven't dared ring the bank to find out if I'm still solvent, but the mere urge to invest in such a bright idea is a sure sign that free enterprise is still alive. As I understand it, which is to the minimum extent compatible with earning a living, there is nothing inherently wrong with a market economy. As long as people make money by making things, and then invest the profit in making more things, an economy can boom forever.
Trouble starts when people start making money out of money itself. Then the whole deal comes tumbling down and finally lands on the less well-off, which at this rate might effectively mean everybody less well-off than the Sultan of Brunei.
But the source of recovery is still there, in the creative imagination it takes to realise that an offer to wrap presents badly could be a money-spinner, because some poor klutz might need it. That kind of creative imagination has its well-spring in human sympathy, in the spirit of charity. And if we have not charity, we are nothing.
A greener way to wrap
In a commendably charitable move, a High Court ruling has just opened the way for those asylum seekers who really can't go home - but haven't been allowed to earn a living either - to work their way out of a financial limbo that beats anything the rest of us are likely to be faced with.
A fair day's wage for a fair day's work is at the basis of all dignity. In my homeland, Australia, it used to be called the Fair Go. When I was very young, after World War II, there was an Australian film called The Sons of Matthew. Any Australian film was big news in those days and we all went to see it, even those of us in short pants. It was about a poor family living in the bush who faced a bleak pre-war Christmas, and the older brothers made toys in secret for the younger ones. I remember a close-up of one of the older brothers as he fought sleep after midnight. He was still working on the details of a little toy train carved from wood.
I was from a poor family myself, but I knew that the presents I would get would be more lavish than that, even though they had cost my mother just as much in labour. Times had changed in Australia since the depression era evoked in the film.
I think it was probably that same year that I unwrapped the box containing my Hornby O-gauge train set imported from Britain. It was a delightful surprise, and would have been less so if it hadn't been wrapped up. I'll try to remember that when I'm fighting the sticky-tape dispenser, even though wrapping isn't among my gifts, if you get what I mean. Merry Christmas, and wrap up well.
Below is a selection of your comments.
My brother uses tin foil to wrap my presents. Every year is the same, no jolly paper, no tape delaying my surprise, just tinfoil wrapped around a couple of times and squashed into a school-sandwich-esque ball on the ends. LOVELY.
I hate it. I trained as a sculptor so I should find it a breeze, but anything with weird unfoldable paper and sticky tape or glue just defeats me. I spent three hours last week wrapping a few gifts. I went through rolls of wrapping paper and my clothes were covered in bits of tape. The task was made much more difficult because I had trapped my finger in a door and was wearing a sticking plaster. I'm much better at swearing than wrapping gifts.
I'm terrible at wrapping and have often struggled with the aforementioned bits of tape stuck on everything but the spot I wanted. But my mother bought a tape wrist dispenser for herself and I now steal it whenever I can. Short pieces of Sellotape you can just grab off your wrist, very highly recommeneded.
James Calvey, Crawley Down, West Sussex
In 1971 I was working at the upscale toy store, FAO Schwarz, which was renowned for unusual and expensive items. A rather well-heeled customer decided to purchase the life-size Steiff tiger that was on display and asked to have it gift wrapped. Being the youngest (and fittest) member of staff, I was taken off the shop floor to oblige. Half a mile of paper later I emerged triumphant, but God only knows how the woman got it home - fortunately I wasn't called upon to load it into her car.
Jean Upton, Chelmsford
I have it all to do tonight and I'm dreading it - though nothing will be as hard to wrap as the ornamental garden Buddha my stepdaughter insisted on buying for her mum last year. That took forever.
Mat Fletcher, Essex
There's some wonderful Christmassy material available these days in the various drapery shops/ market stalls that are cheap ... I use that - it's far more pliable than paper and you don't need tape. I just measure out a piece big enough for the parcel gather it up and tie up with the lovely ribbons that are available and there you go - any shape beautifully wrapped. The parcels never look over-wrapped at the edges and everyone says how pretty they look.
The easiest way to wrap your Christmas gifts is to put up your ironing board. Put your scissors, tape, ribbon, etc where your iron would stand. Place the gift wrap over the board and you can wrap your gifts easily with everything to hand - no more backache or sore knees.
Karel, Chepstow, UK
I hate wrapping presents. It's awkward, it's time consuming, it's messy and my legs always go numb from kneeling on the floor too long. Am I any good at it? Well, I wasn't, but my wife is fantastic at it. Every gift from her is beautifully wrapped with love, care and attention to detail, so how could I give her anything less? So, I watched what she did, learned her secrets and tricks and now wrap all her presents with that same love, care and attention to detail. I still hate doing it though...
Guy, Folkestone, UK
Many years ago when I first joined the post office, I worked in the Damaged Parcel Enclosure. This entailed rewrapping parcels and also tracing addresses to which they should be going. I also did a few stints at the Return Letter Branch. These duties meant that I became quite adept at wrapping awkward shapes, which of course made me the family Xmas present wrapper - not just for immediate family but also for friends and neighbours if they had any unusual shapes to give out. I always enjoyed the challenge of doing this and using my various self-taught tricks.
S Garford, Stockport
I'm glad it's not just me. I despise wrapping presents and put it off and put it off until my wife (who wraps presents beautifully) gets sick of seeing unwrapped gifts lying around and does it for me. This year she has warned me she will not give in. For my wife, it's not so bad as most women's shops and make-up counters have cottoned on and offer a wrapping service. Trouble is, she can tell instantly that I did not do it myself.
Ben Walker, London, England
£3.96 per item? At home in Australia there are charity gift-wrapping stations in most shopping malls, where you can have all your gifts wrapped for a gold coin donation. Bargain.
Jessica, London, UK
I did mine on Saturday at the dining room table, a glass of wine and watching three funny Christmassy films later. Voila! Much better than sitting on the floor getting pins and needles.
Mrs Chauhan, Leicester
My 14 year old German Shepherd loves a well wrapped present and has no trouble finding her own under the tree and opening them.
Diane, Cadiz, Spain
Two words: gift bags.
Jackie Hogarty, Eversley, UK
I actually love wrapping presents and have it down to a fine art now. I agree with the Japanese too - a beautifully wrapped present is much more acceptable - even if what is inside it is not that expensive or exciting. I strongly recommend collecting useful sized boxes through out the year - makes wrapping so much easier, cat food boxes are ideal for many gifts and also foils my annoying relatives who try and guess every present without opening it.
I remember my step-father going to Hanningtons in Brighton and spending a small fortune in their gift wrapping department. Alas the heady 80s are gone and so is Hanningtons. Maybe there is a gap in the market...
Kate, Bedford, UK
I have always loved wrapping gifts - I was once employed to do it over the busy Christmas period. I find wrapping an enjoyable, therapeutic experience & believe that the presentation of one's gift is as equally as important as the gift itself. Every year I try to outdo myself. I learnt to adapt to the more difficult shapes & even managed to visualise in my head how to wrap something that was proving very difficult for one of my friends.
As a fellow clumsy baldy, I feel for your continually bumped head. I hope someone buys you a protective helmet for Christmas. Available from any bicycle shop.
Andrew Smith, Epsom
I quite enjoy wrapping (the first 10 or so) presents. I put it down to my years of origami training. This is the most enjoyable article I've read in a while. Merry Christmas, all.
ThomsonsPier, Reading, UK