Just what I wanted
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.