Christmas-Ship Or, the Art of Giving and Receiving

The problem of Yuletide, saysSTEPHEN POTTER,is how to outgive the other fellow without spending either too much time or loo much money on a present. In his book Gamesmanship or, The Art of Winning Games Withhout Actually Cheating, Mr. Potter scored one of the most laughable triumphs in dead-pan writing. The Editor of the Atlantic was one of the many who urged the author on to further research, and as a result Mr. Potter came up with his second best-seller, Lifemanship or, How To Get Away With It Without Being An Absolute Plonk.


ALL of us think of Christmas as a time when the spirit of friendliness, of being unusually nice to children especially, should prevail. Yet the alert lifeman, even at this time of the year apparently so unfavorable to basic gambiting, knows that the situation can be turned to his advantage, so that he can be nicer than anyone else, really, and yet never lose the unassailable one-upness of the expert. He can even make the recipient of his niceness feel unpleasant, if slightly.

It was Gattling-Fenn, good lifeman and a great Christmas expert, who first taught me something of his theory of the present. Gattling, I knew, always did well by being the most popular “Uncle" present at the Christmas party, annoying genuine uncles who knew that at no other time of the year did Gattling take any notice of children whatever. It was Gattling who first described the “Remember Mrs. Wilson” gambit (see the special edition of Lifemanship printed for the Yale Foundation). Mrs. Wilson is a mythical invalid supposed to be suffering from nerves. Gattling, by exploding comic sausages, would rouse children to a pitch of frenzy and then suddenly tell them not to make too much noise because of Mrs. Wilson. Remember Mrs. Wilson.

It was only last year, however, that I realized the delicacy of Gattling’s technique with the actual giving of presents. If I may summarize Gattling-Fenn, the object of Christmas Giftmanship is: —

1. To make it seem to everybody present that the receiver is getting something better than he has given you.

2. To make the receiver feel that you have got away with a present that looks all right but which he knows isn’t really.

3. To make the receiver feel there is some implied criticism about the present you have chosen.

To lake the last section first because it is the simplest and the easiest to explain, a rather dowdylooking and badly made-up woman who prides herself on “not always dabbing herself with a powder puff" can in certain tones of voice effectively be given the present of a beauty box. Conversely, a woman who is insidiously ostentatious about the flowerlike and impersonal quality of her beauty can be given a hot-water bottle, a small Shetland shawl to wear in bed, or a tin of patent food which announces clearly on the front label that it has been specially treated to be made more easily digestible. Add a shopping bag (a group of friends may arrange together to give this lot as a set) and the effect is almost bound to be annoying over a long period and especially in retrospect. Particularly if, thrown in with the rest, somebody can give her one cheap lipstick smelling of lard.

Under this same head come special presents to men who fancy themselves remarkably young for their age. A spectacle case, for instance, for the man unwilling to disclose ihe fact that he wears glasses; or best of all, a small “You and me” sound amplifier “which anybody over the age of twenty-live is bound to find useful when listening to conversation in a noisy crowded room.”

For the going-one-better ploy, one must act quickly and buy the present for the giver immediately one has received the gift. If a man gives you (if you are a woman) a handbag, you should give him a cigarette case with initials on it, to hint that you have taken more care and he must do better next time. If somebody gives you one of those nice new de luxe editions of Jane Austen in a stand-up cardboard case, you can immediately buy any old nineteenth-century copy of a George Eliot novel and make the Jane Austen giver feel a fool by telling him you have hunted for four years for this example of the Bristol Edition (you can call it a “Bristol First”)‚ and that when you found it six months ago you knew he would be the person to appreciate it.

In more advanced work, poor relations may be maddened by giving them useful presents, like scissors or bradawls. Eminent art critics can be given The World’s Best Twenty Masterpieces in Oil, done in rather poor color reproduction, with the dirty pinks nearly brown and the browns merely dirty. A jolly little poker-work doggie which pops in and out of a kennel shaped like a shoe is a splendid present to give to either

(a) a zoologist;

(b) a collector of Staffordshire ware; or

(c) a breeder of pedigree poodles.

To one’s wife, of course, one gives the present one wants oneself — a book on astronomy, for instance, or even one on golf. A keen gardener, who really knows something about gardening, can be enormously irritated by being given a poetry anthology on the theme of garden flowers referring to flowers in the vaguest possible terms and quite often describing spring flowers and autumn flowers coming out at the same time, and vice versa. Golfers who pride themselves on the manly professionalism of their equipment can be given golf mittens embroidered with knitted nosegays.

It is rather a good thing to give expensive presents

(a) to people who think they are helping you financially; or better still,

(b) to those to whom you owe money.

Any man who prides himself on the period accuracy of his room decoration cun be given a crinoline lady to fit over a telephone. If a hired servant , give your employer something better than he has given you. If you receive an obviously dud present such as a cheap china sweet tray, when the giver next comes to the house to dine, place his present very ostentatiously in the middle, with your own sweet trays (silver, and of obviously better design) grouped round it. If the boss, it is a good thing to give to your employees a calendar consisting of an owl with little numbers under it that have to be moved every day. They will have to be moved every day. Wonders can be done with a genuinely old painted tray, one handle of which, however, has been broken off so many times that it consists entirely of glue and falls to the ground after half an hour by its own weight.

But Gattling, as always, was at his Christmasship best when he came to the treatment of children. His basic gambit was to give them presents a couple of years below their age group. If t he child is continuously burying itself in a corner with War and Peace, giv e it a book about a wild wolf dog which saves a baby from an eagle. If the boy is in the space-travel, space-ship phase, give him any book in which animals talk and hedgehogs wear collars and ties. Or to any child over seven, Gattling would say, with that genial twinkle, give a book on indestructible paper, with special “Childprufe” binding, about Duckie the Cock and Ilis Adventures in Woolie-Woola Land.