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P.G.Wodehouse. Just what I wanted
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The Times 17 December 2001

Just what I wanted

P.G.Wodehouse.

In 1915, while war raged on the Western Front, P.G. Wodehouse offered this advice to the Christmas shopper. With the approach of another wartime Christmas, we should heed his advice

With the advent of Christmas a new spirit seems, every year, to steal over the community, a spirit of cheerfulness and goodwill. Minor employees of hotels, restaurants and other nests of pirates smile oilily at our approach. Our relatives out West write us long, chatty letters about the dear old life in the far-off home town, and speculate round the fireside of an evening as to how much we are good for and whether they were really wise in handicapping the eldest son with our Christian name on the off-chance of our unloosening a bit from time to time.

Our friends greet us in the street with "Well! Christmas will soon be here!" registering the while a mental vow that, until they know what sort of a present we are going to give them, they are hanged if they are going to go above a dollar-ten for us. Everywhere you see it, this genial, Dickensy, hearty, peace-and-good-will-and-all-that-sort-of-thing spirit. Holly hangs on the walls. Happy days! Happy days! In these circumstances, it behooves us to be prepared. It is useless to imagine, as everyone has done in his more optimistic moods, that the family circle will accept regrets and stories of parcels gone wrong in the post.

You worked that, if you remember, in 1905, and it is not a thing that goes well twice. No, presents must be bought, and the only thing to do is to try to get off as lightly as possible.

The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny.

If the object chosen is of leather, the leather must look as if it had just been well greased: if of silver, it must gleam with that light which, as the poet so well says, never was on sea or land. Books are very popular for that reason. There is probably nothing in existence which can look so shiny as a collected works of Longfellow, Tennyson or Wordsworth.

I have seen a common house-fly alight on the back of a Christmas edition of Rabindranath Tagore which I had given to my Uncle James and slide the whole length of the volume, eventually shooting off with incredible velocity and stunning itself against the wall. Many smart people, indeed, strew their drawing-rooms with books which have been wished on them in the merry season of Yule for no other reason than to encompass the dissolution of such flies as may have escaped the swatting of the lower servants told off for that purpose.

They may also be used as mirrors.

My only objection to the custom of giving books as Christmas presents is perhaps the selfish one that it encourages and keeps in the game a number of writers who would be far better employed if they abandoned the pen and took to work.

Publishers rely on the festive season to help them to get rid of all these bulky volumes which they have published at intervals during the past twelve months to oblige their wives' relations.

A more judicious spirit of giving on the part of the public would kill almost entirely the sale of such works as Travels Among the Lesser-Known Haunts of the Siberian Eel-Vulture, Forgotten Walks Through Old Hoboken, Bird-Life on the Lower Mississippi, and the like.

Humaneness and consideration for others are the two virtues which every buyer of Christmas presents should possess. His ideal should be to select something which shall be capable of being passed on to somebody else either next Christmas or when some hold-up man who happens to be a friend of the victim announces that he is about to marry. Much misery has been caused in an infinite number of homes by the practice of giving presents which cannot be treated in this way. I recollect handing on to a friend who was contemplating laying the foundations of a future divorce, by espousing some girl whose name at the moment escapes me, a singularly repellent claret-jug, presented to me at Christmas by my Aunt Charlotte, which, unknown to me, bore the inscription "With fondest love from CBH".

The discovery of this among the wedding-gifts and my friend's total inability to explain who the fondly-loving CBH was, gave the bride an advantage from which her lord and master never recovered, and it was only when, at the end of their first year of wedlock, the courts separated the happy pair that he found himself once more happily in possession of a latch-key.

How different a present was that Smoker's Ideal Companion which I received on Christmas, 1903. It was given to me by the wife of an old college friend, and it had everything, including a brass cigar-cutter, which makes smoking a loathsome impossibility to the rightly-constituted man. I hesitate, for I am not quite sure of my facts, to make such an accusation, but I rather think the beastly thing included a velvet smoking-cap. I gave it away in the autumn of 1904 to another old college friend as a wedding-present, and thought no more of it. What was my surprise, on Christmas morning, 1908, to receive it back from a distant cousin. I gave it away once again, Christmas 1909, only to unpack it in my home on Christmas morning, 1914, -- this time as the gift of my old friend's wife who had first given it to me in 1903.

The thing had completed the full circle, and looked as good as new, though it contained no smoking-cap. It may be that it never had contained a smoking-cap, or possibly the passage of time wrought more heavily on the velvet than on the brass. I confess to a not unmanly wave of sentiment when I beheld it once more and thought of all the good men whom it had enabled to give a handsome and desirable Christmas gift without that expenditure which in these days of the high cost of living it is always so pleasant to avoid.

In a month from now it will be starting out on its travels again, but on a different route, for I am sending it to a friend in Australia, whither, I feel sure, it has never yet penetrated.

The question, "What becomes of the Christmas presents?", is one which has long vexed thinking men. Every year a tidal wave of incredibly useless junk bursts upon the metropolis, and somehow or other it is disposed of long before the first mosquito steps down to the New Jersey shore and hails the Twenty-third Street ferry. A proportion of this, no doubt, is kept working after the manner of my Smoker's Ideal Companion; but the vast majority of Christmas presents simply disappear. My own theory is that they are sold back to the shops, whence they emerge next year in another incarnation.

It is a known fact, I believe, that every large store in a big city retains a special staff of skilled workmen whose sole duty it is to transform old Christmas presents into new Christmas presents of a different species.

They are like clever cooks who can turn anything into anything. They receive the combined pocket-book, cigar-case, and handy manicure-set, and, with a few deft touches, transform it into the purse with an attachment for milking cows which is to be all the rage in the following season. They take the slightly soiled set of Shakespeare and give it a nice shiny coat of varnish.

If I had only known in time of their existence, I could no doubt, for a small consideration, have got them to make over my aunt Charlotte's claret-jug into a pair of tango-slippers or something. On no other theory is the total disappearance of last year's Christmas presents to be explained. Matter cannot be destroyed: it can only be transformed.

The burden of Christmas-present giving has of late years been grievously increased by the growing sophistication of the modern child. In the good old days it was possible to give a child practically anything, and receive in return a gratitude which has now gone completely out of fashion.

I can still recall thanking with warmth and genuine sincerity an uncle whose annual gift to me consisted of a small box of candy and an orange.

But for the modern child you have got to do better than that. You have got to dig down a bit. You have got to strip off a few from the roll.

The modern child has no illusions. You can't hand him anything about Santa Claus.

He has got your number.

The modern child wakes on Christmas morning -- a little late, for he was fox-trotting into the small hours -- and rings languidly for Wilberforce, his man, to unwrap the presents. He sneers at the silver cigarette-case from Uncle Paul, and gives it to Wilberforce. He exhibits a little excitement at the announcement that Aunt Matilda has given him a new automobile, but relapses into a moody gloom when he hears what make it is, for people are no longer buying that sort of car. It is only when dear old grandpapa is discovered to have presented him with a block of Bethlehem Steel that he becomes really cheerful. He instructs Wilberforce to get his broker on the 'phone first thing when the exchange re-opens. He also asks Wilberforce to call up grandpapa and thank him.

Wilberforce then tactfully withdraws. The youth lights a cigarette and leans back wearily on the pillows.

I love the old carols of Yuletide. One hears them all too little nowadays.

How full they were of the spirit of optimism and consolation. That one about "Christmas Comes But Once a Year!" ... That is my favourite, I think.

This piece was written under the pen name of P. Brooke-Haven, just one name used by P. G. Wodehouse for his contributions to the American magazine Vanity Fair from 1914 to 1923.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.